Former Priest Explains Past;
Neil Conway Talks of His Sex Crimes As Police Investigate a Recent Allegation
By Stephanie Warsmith
Akron Beacon Journal [Ohio]
April 5, 2002
Neil Conway doesn't fit the image as the poster child for fallen priests.
Dressed in a plaid shirt and paint-stained pants, he sipped nonalcoholic beer and puffed on his pipe earlier this week as he reflected on the strange turn his life has taken.
The former Summit County parish priest has been one of the few members of the Catholic clergy to openly admit molesting young boys during his time with the church. His surprising frankness has put him in the national spotlight and landed him in the middle of a heated debate about whether the Roman Catholic Church has protected itself at the expense of innocent children.
"It remains to be seen whether I'm a complete fool," Conway said, while lounging in a worn rocking chair in the living room of his farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In the past few weeks, Conway has been in newspapers and Newsweek magazine, has appeared on Nightline and was featured in a Peter Jennings ABC special Wednesday. He has admitted molesting eight boys during his 22 years with the church -- and said he stopped in 1985 when a nun found a young boy in his bed at St. John the Baptist Church in Akron.
The 65-year-old retired priest is somewhat uncomfortable with his new visibility. He recalled an encounter he had with a woman in the airport when he was returning to Ohio from Boston, where one interview took place. The woman overheard him talking and wanted to know if he was "someone important."
"Honey, I've been important for 24 hours and that's enough," he told her. "I don't want to be important anymore."
But that is something Conway may not be able to control.
New allegation Conway insists he has not touched a child sexually since 1985. After the boy was found in his bed at St. John's, Conway underwent counseling for a year and a half and then left the church because a medical and psychological report stated he could no longer perform his duties as priest.
The Summit County sheriff's office is currently investigating a more recent case.
Conway said he thinks the father of a 6-year-old boy who is alleging that his son was molested by Conway has an ulterior motive.
Conway said he has known the father for more than two decades. In fact, the man, his wife and their son often visited his farm in the section of Cuyahoga Falls that used to be Northampton Township.
About a year and a half ago, Conway said, the couple split up, and the wife brought their son to the farm. Conway let them stay there for a few days. Eventually, the couple divorced and the mother was awarded custody of the boy.
Conway said he thinks the father is now accusing him of abuse to try to gain custody.
The father, who is 41, also is claiming that Conway abused him when he was younger -- an offense that would have happened too long ago to prosecute.
Conway denies ever touching the father or son.
"If he (the father) can convince the court that she was bringing him out here so I would abuse the child," Conway said, "that story would put the screws to me... but would also put the screws to his wife, and he would get his child back, which is what he wants."
The father could not be reached for comment. His ex-wife has declined to comment. The family is not being named to protect the child.
Struggles with sexuality Conway grew up in a big, Catholic family in Shaker Heights and decided to become a priest when he was 14. He enthusiastically shared the news with his father and their parish priest and then took a self-imposed vow of celibacy, even though it wasn't required before entering the seminary.
Conway said he did not realize he was a homosexual until he was 35. By that time, he had been ordained a priest, was assigned to a Cleveland parishand was bound by a vow of celibacy.
In 1983, he became the associate pastor at St. Barnabas in Northfield. Two years later, he took over as pastor at St. John's in Akron.
Conway hedged when questioned about the molestations he has previously talked about. Asked why he molested the boys, he said the issue needs a great deal of study.
What Conway did say is that he abused eight boys during his time with the church -- all, he said, were "generally" between the ages of 13 and 16. He said he fondled the boys, but did not have intercourse with them.
Conway does not consider himself a pedophile. He differentiates between people who abuse young children and those who abuse teen-agers. He compares this to a preference for "different brands."
He said the counseling he underwent at a private Catholic psychiatric hospital in Maryland helped. But he said he will never be cured.
"You're never cured of an addiction," he said.
Difficult times Conway is living in a nearly idyllic setting -- in the middle of almost 18 acres with only his dog and cat, Pongo and Putty Cat. But his life since retiring from the priesthood has been far from idyllic.
One of his major struggles has been with alcohol -- a fight that he said has been tougher than his sexual addiction. He said he is now sober and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but the urge to drink has been constant since he was 30.
Conway fell off the wagon in early 1997 and found himself in trouble with police. He was convicted of three minor charges, including two theft offenses.
"I started acting crazy -- shoplifting," he said.
In 1999, Conway filed for bankruptcy after amassing nearly $56,000 in debt -- most of it on credit cards, according to federal bankruptcy court records.
Conway said most of the debt came from repairs to his farm, including an updated electrical system.
He worked out a payment plan with the bankruptcy court and said his debts will be paid by August. He lives on about $1,800 a month from a diocese pension and money from his family, according to court records.
Conway's neighbors are not friendly toward him -- one even described him as a thorn in their sides. He admits having large fund-raisers with bands, allowing a woman to raise barking basset hounds on his property and occasionally allowing his horse to wander.
Complaints filed Conway said he will only be around children when they are supervised by adults.
"I made a rule for myself not to be alone with any teen ever," he said. "This makes it in a way easier."
Yet Conway has not exactly isolated himself.
He has AA gatherings on his property that young people have attended. He said there have always been adult chaperons, but he has joined in the parties.
In 1997, two complaints were filed against Conway with the Summit County Children Services Board, both claiming he had unsupervised children on his farm. The parents of the children in question told CSB officials they had accompanied their children to the farm and the matter was dropped, according to CSB officials.
Living in fear In the 15 years since he retired from the priesthood, Conway said he has lived with the fear that he would get a knock on the door from someone wanting to ask about his past or that he would wake up and see an article in the newspaper. He said hiding his secret made him "sick."
Conway said he may regret his decision to talk openly about his past, especially if prosecutors and police are "on my butt for years."
The statute of limitations has expired for the sex abuse that occurred when he was a parish priest. But deputies have said he could be charged with the newer allegation.
So far, Conway said the response he's gotten by speaking out has been overwhelmingly positive. He's received letters and e-mails -- most from friends, but some from strangers -- praising him.
Conway said he has even heard from a few of his victims, who said they were glad he was "working to make sure this does not happen to other kids."
He said he got only one negative phone message.
Conway took a suggestion from police this week and hung a chain and "No Trespassing" sign at the end of his driveway. So far, he said the only people who have come to his remote home have been friends and journalists.
While Conway felt the precaution was necessary, he said he's glad that he is no longer harboring his secret. And he hopes others will follow his example.
"I'm doing something positive and not just hiding," he said. "It becomes depressing when all you have to show for your life is a lot of shame and guilt."
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