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  Up to Five Priests Accused of Abuse, Local Diocese Says

By Jonathan Osborne
Austin American-Statesman [Texas]
May 7, 2002

As many as five priests in the Catholic Diocese of Austin have been accused of sexual abuse over the past 20 years, though none of them are still active in the ministry, according to a church review of its records.

Diocese spokeswoman Helen Osman would not discuss the specifics of each case. But, she said, the list of "fewer than a half-dozen" includes 16-year-old allegations against the Rev. C. Richard Nowery, who sought psychological treatment in 1986 after being accused of sexually abusing a minor when he was pastor of St. Ignatius Martyr Church in South Austin.

After completing that therapy, Osman said, Nowery was certified to return to the ministry but was assigned to an administrative job. No criminal charges or civil lawsuits were ever filed against him in Travis County.

But eight days ago, Nowery, who left Austin to become pastor of a church in Louisiana in 1994, was removed from the Archdiocese of New Orleans after Catholic leaders there learned of the allegations in Austin. Nowery could not be reached for comment.

Father William Maestri, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said church officials had received no complaints against Nowery. His dismissal, Maestri said, was precautionary.

"We always want to put the safety of children and families first," Maestri said. "We simply cannot take a chance to place children in any kind of risk whatsoever."

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nowery is the third priest in that city to be relieved of his duties in recent months. The issue of sexual abuse among clergy hit the national spotlight when reports started surfacing about priests accused of sexual abuse who were moved from church to church, diocese to diocese instead of relieved from their duties. The spotlight is focused mostly on Boston, where at least 450 people have come forward since January saying they were sexually abused by priests, according to published reports.

Nowery is the second former Austin priest to be swept into the storm. Last month, a $5.5 million lawsuit was filed against the Archdiocese of Portland, accusing the church of ignoring complaints in 1953 that Rev. Rocco Perone had molested a 9-year-old boy dozens of times there over a two-year period. Perone, who was assigned to St. Austin's Catholic Church in 1957, died in in 1991.

Osman has said there is nothing in Perone's file to indicate that any concerns about him had been raised in Austin.

Months before the issue made headlines, members of the Diocese of Austin, which covers a 25-county area from San Marcos to Waco, were hammering out a stricter ethics code for everyone involved in the church, especially those who work with children.

Aside from requiring that anyone with knowledge of possible abuse immediately report it to civil authorities, the code describes the appropriate way to hug a child. It alsobans piggyback rides, tickling, wrestling and holding a child over the age of 2 on the lap.

Osman said the review of close to 1,000 files, which Austin Bishop Gregory Aymond started when he joined the diocese in January 2000 and finished about a month ago, showed that all the accusations of sexual abuse by priests reported to the diocese, including those against Nowery, were handled appropriately at the time they surfaced. None of the incidents resulted in criminal charges or civil lawsuits, Osman said.

Nowery, a priest of the Holy Cross order, was ordained at Notre Dame University in 1968. He came to Austin -- and St. Ignatius -- 12 years later, said Rev. John Korcsmar, the top official, or provincial, for the Southern Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Korcsmar said the two accusations against Nowery came to light in 1986 when the families contacted top officials at Southern Province. Neither Osman nor Korcsmar would elaborate about the circumstances surrounding the allegations, other than to say the first incident reportedly occurred in 1981 and the second in 1986.

"The concern was to make sure he got treatment and to make sure something worse wouldn't happen or it wouldn't happen again," Korcsmar said. "As far as we can tell, that's been on the money."

After his treatment, staff at the St. Luke Institute in Maryland said Nowery was not a "danger to anyone and that he was fit for ministry," Korcsmar said. Nowery returned to Austin and was placed in an administrative job at the Southern Province that would not put him in direct contact with children.

In 1994, Nowery moved to New Orleans where he started as an associate pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. The next year he became pastor.

Maestri said the New Orleans archdiocese was unaware of the accusations against Nowery when he took the post. Korcsmar, who became provincial of the Southern Province in 1997, said the protocol at the time had been to inform another dioceses only if there had been "untreated" problems.

"It's not as though he fell between the cracks or we didn't care," Korcsmar said. "He was judged to be fit for a ministry."

Nowery's record was discovered after New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes ordered a review of the files of every priest working in the archdiocese to see if any contained allegations of sexual abuse. Hughes relieved Nowery of his duties on April 29, the same day Korcsmar informed him of the accusations against Nowery in Austin.

That decision was announced to the congregation of Sacred Heart over the weekend.

"I went to the parish Saturday night," said Korcsmar, who was driving back to Austin Monday. "They were rather defensive of him and very supportive of him. They don't discount what he did, but they think he's tried to make amends."

Nowery has not been removed from the priesthood. But, Korcsmar said, he has been barred from performing any official priestly functions, such as baptisms, and he likely won't be allowed to return to any form of public ministry.

Korcsmar said Nowery, 64, had left New Orleans, and is not in Texas. He would not elaborate.

"He's in a place where he's safe and certainly others will be safe," Korcsmar said. "I talked to him last week. His feelings are that he did some things that were very wrong. He has been very straightforward about it. He has been very cooperative in terms of therapy and he has done well as far as we can tell. He's kind of, right now, rather devastated, himself."

Rev. C. Richard Nowery's file

1968: Ordained at Notre Dame University

1980: Comes to St. Ignatius Martyr Church in Austin

1986: Families tell the Southern Province of the Congregation of Holy Cross that Nowery abused a minor that year and in 1981. Nowery completes therapy and moves to administrative position at Southern Province

1994: Nowery becomes associate pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans

1995: Nowery becomes pastor of Sacred Heart

February 2002: New Orleans archbishop orders review of all files on priests in the Archdiocese of New Orleans

April 29, 2002: New Orleans archbishop learns of accusations against Nowery in Austin and removes him from archdiocese

 
 

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