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  Diocese Puts Wendell Priest on Suspension

By Yonat Shimron
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC)
April 25, 2002

Roman Catholic Bishop F. Joseph Gossman has temporarily removed a priest from a Wendell church after receiving allegations of sexual misconduct involving a seminary student 26 years ago and inappropriate contact with three other adults since then.

The Rev. Thomas Watkins, 61, of St. Eugene Catholic Church denied the allegations through a church spokesman but could not be reached for comment.

Watkins is the third priest Gossman has removed from duties in the past two weeks amid increasing reports nationwide of sexual abuse involving clergy.

In the other two cases, priests were permanently removed amid allegations of abusing minors years ago. Unlike those cases, Watkins' removal is temporary, and the allegations do not involve sexual contact with minors.

"Until a thorough review of the incident takes place, I believe it is in the best interests of Rev. Watkins to be on administrative leave pending the outcome of the diocesan investigation," Gossman said.

Gossman did not specify what kind of investigation the Raleigh diocese will conduct, but a diocesan official suggested it may include a psychological evaluation.

The allegations against Watkins were raised last month by Richard Winterich, 45, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Winterich said Watkins betrayed his trust and shattered his self-esteem, leading to years of therapy for depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse. Winterich said his case constituted an abuse of a priest's authority.

When he and Watkins met, Watkins was a priest in the Marianist religious order and teacher at Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland. Watkins helped Winterich, a student, form a Bible study group, and over time the two became friends.

In 1976, after graduating from high school, Winterich enrolled at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. Winterich, who was 18, said he continued to see Watkins, who helped him with his schoolwork and became his confidant and confessor.

On at least two occasions, Winterich said, Watkins came to his dorm room with a bottle of wine. The second time, Watkins told him he loved him and asked whether he could kiss him, Winterich said. Winterich said he expected a kiss on the cheek, but Watkins kissed him on the lips and then suggested sexual contact.

At that point, Winterich said, he got up, threw a book at Watkins and ordered him to leave.

"For three years it seemed all he was doing was trying to seduce me," said Winterich, who dropped out of the seminary and lives in a halfway house in Fort Lauderdale. "I've suffered from feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem. I haven't been able to stay in a job. I've attempted suicide. It's caused me a lot of grief."

Gossman's advisory board, which reviews all allegations of sexual misconduct, viewed Winterich's allegations as credible, according to a statement released by the diocese.

The board has also taken into account three alleged incidents involving adults. It was unclear whether those took place in the Raleigh diocese.

Meanwhile, Winterich has hired a lawyer who has been communicating with the diocese.

Watkins was ordained in 1963. In 1990, he applied to become a priest in the Raleigh diocese. Since then, he has served at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raleigh, St. Michael's in Cary and St. Francis de Sales in Lumberton. In 1996, Watkins left the Marianist order and became a diocesan priest.

Watkins' removal brings to five the number of priests removed in North Carolina in recent weeks. In addition to Watkins, Gossman has removed the Rev. Francis "Drew" Perry, pastor of St. Joseph in Burgaw and Transfiguration in Wallace, and the Rev. James Behan of Immaculate Conception in Wilmington.

In Charlotte, Bishop William Curlin has removed the Rev. Richard Farwell, a Charlotte-affiliated priest who was serving at Food for the Poor in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and the Rev. Jim O'Neill, of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Greensboro. Farwell faces an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor; O'Neill faces an accusation of inappropriate behavior, but the details of the case have not been disclosed.

In the Raleigh diocese, allegations also have been made against a priest living in a nursing home and a priest who is no longer alive. In Charlotte, accusations have been made against three other inactive priests.

Parishioners at St. Eugene, a church of 1,200 members, were stunned at the allegations.

"I don't believe it," said Ted Ours, a longtime member of the church. "I'm shocked. He's one of the most spiritual men I've ever met. I don't know what to say."

Other members said Watkins worked hard to welcome Hispanics, develop an adult religious education program and help the church pull together as a community.

"I've always felt he was a good priest and particularly fitted to the Hispanic ministry of the church and helping those folks who were economically disadvantaged," said Joe Howell, a parishioner at St. Eugene.

Howell said the church has nearly doubled in the number of Spanish-speakers over the past four years. He said Watkins was learning to speak Spanish.

 
 

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