DC Priest Accused of Misconduct
Sisters Allege Abuse From 1979 to 1984
By Caryle Murphy and Debbi Wilgoren
March 22, 2002
The Archdiocese of Washington has suspended the pastor of one of the District's most prominent Catholic parishes after receiving allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct with two teenage girls more than 20 years ago.
Monsignor Russell L. Dillard, 54, pastor of the 143-year-old St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church for 12 years, was placed on leave after the two women, who are sisters, came forward this month to accuse him of having kissed and touched them inappropriately from 1979 to 1984, archdiocesan officials said yesterday.
When confronted with the allegations, Dillard acknowledged that he had had a relationship with the girls that was physical at times, said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington. He said Dillard denied that his contact with them was inappropriate.
Dillard, who has been a priest for 24 years, told WUSA-TV yesterday that there "was kissing" with one girl but that "I thought it was a very, very close friendship, a father-daughter, big brother-big sister kind of thing."
He added: "I know a young woman feels hurt and that I have stepped, crossed over a line. And though it did not lead to anything that was untoward, anything sexual . . . she's hurt, and I have to take responsibility for that."
One of the sisters, now a 36-year-old professor, disputed Dillard's characterization of their relationship, which occurred when Dillard was a priest at St. Anthony's of Padua Catholic Church in Northeast Washington.
The woman said in an interview that she and Dillard did not have intercourse but engaged in intense kissing and that he touched her inappropriately. "Yes, I was madly in love. But I was 14, and he was 32," she said.
The woman, who agreed to the interview on the condition that she not be identified, said, "This is basically a Clinton thing, his definition of sex. . . . I'm disgusted."
She said she decided to inform the archdiocese now because of a growing national church scandal involving priests accused of child sex abuse. She said she also wanted to "make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else."
Since the Archdiocese of Boston admitted in January that it had repeatedly reassigned a priest who sexually abused scores of children, dioceses in more than 10 states have dismissed priests and paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by victims.
St. Augustine's, at 15th and V streets NW, was the city's first predominantly African American Catholic church, and Dillard is its first black pastor. Among its 3,500 members is D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
More than 20 parishioners, most of them in shock and some close to tears, formed a protective phalanx around Dillard when he emerged from a church building yesterday to enter a car sent by the archdiocese. Looking shaken, the tall, graying priest declined to comment.
Many parishioners at St. Augustine's and St. Anthony's expressed skepticism about the allegations.
"I don't believe that," said Selika Brown, 75, whose daughter, Cherie, graduated from St. Anthony Catholic High School in 1978. Brown recalled Dillard working closely with children at the parish, helping them put on plays and organizing other activities. "I just know him. He just would not do anything like that."
Michelle Phipp-Evans, whose 8-year-old son attends St. Augustine's school and has talked about following Dillard into the priesthood, said the accusations "confirm that priests in the Catholic Church should be able to get married."
"My son wanted to be a priest so bad he could taste it," said Phipp-Evans, editor of the Washington Afro American newspaper. "This is really going to affect him. This is really going to rock the community."
Dillard will undergo a psychological evaluation at a residential treatment facility, and the archdiocese will wait for the results before reaching a final conclusion about the allegations, McCarrick said.
He said the archdiocese's stringent policy on child abuse allegations left him no choice but to temporarily remove Dillard.
"The fact that it's a man who's a friend, and a man for whom I have great respect, makes it a bit harder, but the first priority has to be the children," the cardinal said.
Archdiocesan officials said Dillard could return to St. Augustine's if exonerated but would be removed permanently from active ministry if the women's accusations are found to be true. The archdiocese has offered to pay for counseling for the sisters if they request it, spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said.
The first woman to come forward contacted the archdiocese in an e-mail March 14, and the archdiocese told D.C. police about the allegations Tuesday, officials said.
Because of the District's six-year statute of limitation in such cases, authorities "cannot place charges, even if the allegations were proven true," Sgt. Joe Gentile, a police department spokesman, said.
Dillard, a native of Washington, was raised Baptist and converted to Catholicism when he was 12. After his 1978 ordination, he became associate pastor at St. Anthony's. In 1987, he was appointed pastor of St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church in Northwest Washington and for a while served as a chaplain at Howard University.
Gibbs said Dillard's files do not contain any allegations of misconduct.
Dillard, who was officially suspended Monday, wanted to tell parishioners himself about his situation at Mass on Sunday. The archdiocese initially agreed to this but decided to announce his suspension yesterday because people had begun to hear about the allegations, Gibbs said.
The accusations against Dillard are the first such allegations to surface publicly in the archdiocese since 1995, when a former altar boy accused four longtime priests of sexually abusing him during the 1970s. Two of the four priests had prior allegations against them, which the church had kept quiet.
The priests were criminally prosecuted in Prince George's County on charges of sexual misconduct. One pleaded guilty, two were convicted and one was acquitted.
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