Accused Priest, Now Retired, Has Church Role
Diocese Says, 'No Children at Risk'
By Judy L. Thomas and Matt Stearns
Kansas City Star
April 13, 2002
A retired priest accused of child sexual abuse continues to have a role in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, contrary to assurances that diocesan leaders have repeatedly given parishioners. And a diocesan official said Friday that, to the best of his knowledge, four other retired priests have faced sexual abuse accusations as well. Those four priests have varying levels of activity in the diocese, said the Rev. Patrick R. Rush, the diocese's vicar general.
Rush would not elaborate on the activities of the four. In the case of the fifth priest, the diocese paid $20,000 in 1999 to settle a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexually abusing a former teen-age parishioner.
That priest, the Rev. Thomas J. Ward, 69, is retired but has been listed as "assisting priest" at St. Margaret's Catholic Community parish in Lee's Summit. He denied the accusations in a deposition taken in the case.
But in a letter to parishioners in the diocese last month, Bishop Raymond J. Boland said, "We presently have no priest, teacher or youth minister in a parish or school who has ever been accused of any form of child sexual abuse."
Rush said Boland's statement was not misleading, because Ward and the four other accused priests are retired and therefore not officially assigned to any parishes. Rush characterized those priests as free-lancers who assist in parishes when needed and are paid $50 each time they celebrate Mass.
"The way Tom Ward functions puts no children at risk," Rush said.
Rush said none of the four other priests, whom he would not name, present a danger because "they are not in parish ministry, and we are able to have supervision of them in one way or the other, and in some instances we don't think the accusations were credible." Rush said two of the priests were accused just in the last week, and the diocese had not had a chance to investigate the validity of the allegations.
"We will comply with Missouri law in any revelations," Rush said.
The civil suit in Ward's case, filed by Nicolas Gray in 1994, contended that Ward sexually abused Gray over a 10-year period beginning in 1982, when Gray was 14. The lawsuit also alleged that the diocese "conspired to cover up the illicit activities." Ward would not comment for this article. But in his sworn deposition, Ward said he didn't meet Gray until sometime in 1983, and saw him only eight to 10 times over a three-year period after that. No criminal charges were filed against Ward in the case, and church officials said a psychological evaluation of Ward found no reason to believe the allegations were true. Rush said it was his understanding that the church never covered up any illicit activities in the case.
Ward officially retired in September 1996. But in the St. Margaret's church bulletin and on the church's Web site, Ward has been listed as an "assisting priest" on the pastoral staff. Ward has a staff e-mail address. The Web site also has named Ward as one of two contacts for parishioners who want to schedule weddings. On occasion, Ward celebrates Mass at St. Margaret's and helps out at other parishes as well, said the Rev. Michael Rice, St. Margaret's pastor.
"He's been a great help for us," Rice said. "He takes the load off of me."
St. Margaret's was established in 1999 to alleviate crowding at a nearby Lee's Summit parish. While awaiting construction of its own building, the church meets in the auditorium of Grace United Methodist Church and in the gymnasium of Prairie View Elementary School, both in Lee's Summit. The church has about 500 member families.
"He's an excellent priest, and I really mean that from two angles," Rice said of Ward. "His liturgies are very effective to the people, and secondly, I know him personally as a friend, and his own personal spirituality I think puts mine to shame half the time." Gray said he was angered to learn that Ward still was working in the diocese.
"I had just safely assumed that he was no longer performing any duties," he said. "I'm furious that he still has an actual right to be a priest."
But Rush on Friday sought to minimize Ward's role at St. Margaret's.
"Father Ward retired from active ministry September 1, 1996," Rush said. "Since that time, he's had absolutely no parish assignment, nor has he received any salary or benefit from a parish, nor has he been assigned to live in parish housing." Even so, Rush said he had instructed Rice on Friday to remove Ward's name from the church bulletin and Web site as "assisting pastor," and as a point of contact for couples wanting to schedule marriages.
"I agree the title 'assisting priest' is misleading," Rush said. "For what it's worth, that's not a title that has any meaning in our organization."
Gray, who has never spoken publicly about the case, said he agreed to come forward now to help others in the wake of revelations about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
He said Ward's abuse began in fall 1982 in the rectory at St. Catherine's parish in south Kansas City.
After hearing Gray's confession, Ward asked the teen increasingly detailed questions about his personal sexual habits, Gray said in a sworn deposition. Ward later exposed himself to Gray and masturbated, Gray said.
"I felt very nervous, and I was shaking a little bit. ... I just froze," Gray said.
Ward then allegedly told Gray "he thought I was a very special person and that - he said that when I needed to make another confession for me to call and ask for him, and for me not to tell anybody what happened, because people would not understand, and he and I had a 'special relationship."'
Gray said the sexual relationship continued intermittently over a 10-year period, even as its effects took their toll on him. "Going to somebody, a spiritual guider, for penance, and for them to take advantage of you is a very detrimental thing to somebody's psyche," Gray said in his deposition. "For the longest time, I didn't know how to identify my depression or how to identify my anxiety."
His grades suffered, he had disciplinary problems in school, and he said he attempted suicide twice.
Ward, meanwhile, served several parishes in the diocese through his career.
After Gray sued in 1994, Boland placed Ward on a six-month leave of absence from his position as pastor at Nativity of the Blessed Mary parish in Independence.
After the psychological evaluation, the diocese's Independent Review Board for sexual abuse allegations said Ward's parishioners should decide whether to allow the priest to return to the parish. "The review board had serious reservations about the accusations against (Ward)," said Joe McGuff, who after retiring as editor of The Kansas City Star served as chairman of the review board. In an Aug. 2, 1994, letter to Ward's parishioners, Boland wrote that Ward's evaluation "gave no reason to believe that the allegation might be true."
Nativity parishioners gave Ward a vote of confidence by a margin of 845-17.
Rush said St. Margaret's parishioners have not been officially informed by the diocese of the allegations against Ward. Gray's lawsuit continued after Ward's reinstatement and retirement. Ward was dismissed as a defendant in 1997 because the statute of limitations had expired and because of other technicalities, said Robert Wells, Gray's attorney. But the courts rejected the diocese's attempts to get the case thrown out.
Gray and Ward both gave depositions in 1998. On Jan. 28, 1999, within four months of Ward's deposition, the diocese settled the lawsuit.
In a prepared statement issued this week, the diocese said "on the recommendation of legal counsel, the diocese believed that a settlement with Nicholas (sic) Gray would be less costly than an appeal process. The 'nuisance value' settlement amounted to $20,000."
Gray said in a recent interview that he settled so he could move on with his life.
"I'd struggled with this for six years, and I just wanted to get it over with," Gray said.
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