Lexington Bishop Williams Resigns
Catholic Official Insists He's Innocent of Sex Abuse
By Smith Peter
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
June 12, 2002
Lexington Bishop J. Kendrick Williams resigned yesterday, maintaining his innocence and saying he hoped to free the diocese he founded from the turmoil of sex-abuse allegations against him.
Williams, who has led the diocese since its founding in 1988, is the third U.S. bishop to resign this year since the scandal over past sexual misconduct by priests began rocking the Catholic Church.
In a prepared statement yesterday, Williams said, "I do not want my resignation to give any credence to the allegations made against me. I offered my resignation to the Holy Father, stating that I believe that by my stepping down, the diocese can rid itself of the cloud which hangs over it and me at this time.''
Williams, 65, has been accused of sexual or emotional abuse by three men in lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Louisville, where Williams worked from his ordination in 1963 until he was named an auxiliary bishop of Covington in 1984.
The Vatican said Pope John Paul II accepted Williams' resignation, submitted under church law for "illness or some other grave reason.''
"The last three weeks have been the most challenging of my life,'' said Williams, who has repeatedly denied ever abusing anyone.
"Through agonizing days and sleepless nights, I have thought about the 39 years of my priesthood and the privilege laid upon me,'' he said. "I recognize my shortcomings, but I believe that I have been a good priest and bishop. This makes the allegations against me all the more painful.''
Last month, Williams placed himself on leave pending the results of a lawsuit and an internal investigation, after the first allegation surfaced that he sexually abused a Louisville boy in 1981.
IN ACCORDANCE with the Dio-
cese of Lexington's policies on sexual misconduct, Williams said at the time that he would refrain from all pastoral ministry while the matter was investigated. He announced that while on leave he would not celebrate Masses, ordinations, confirmations or other public services.
A diocesan board of priests yesterday appointed the Rev. Robert Nieberding administrator of the diocese, pending the naming of a bishop, according to Richard Watson, a deacon at Christ the King Cathedral who attended the meeting of the board. Nieberding, vicar general of the diocese and pastor of Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church in Lexington, has been performing the bishop's administrative duties since Williams went on leave.
Williams remains a bishop, though when a bishop resigns under such circumstances he normally refrains from public ministry, according to the Rev. Mark Spalding, judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Louisville and an expert in canon law.
Any future assignments or disciplinary actions regarding Williams would be decided by the pope in consultation with his diplomatic representative in Washington, Spalding said.
Williams conveyed his resignation offer to the pope on May 31 through the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Washington, according to diocesan spokesman Thomas Shaughnessy.
Louisville Archbishop Thomas Kelly - whose archdiocese faces 119 lawsuits alleging abuse by 18 priests and employees, including Williams - said he was saddened by Williams' departure.
"HE HAS BEEN a great servant
of the church, and his leadership and achievements will always be a gift to us,'' Kelly said in a statement issued yesterday.
"Bishop Williams' resignation is a personal loss for me as well,'' Kelly added. "He has been a brother, counselor and friend to me for 20 years. May God bring peace to his pastor's heart as he looks to the future. May we always remember the blessings that have come to us through his ministry.''
Attorney William McMurry, who represents the three plaintiffs alleging abuse by Williams, said the resignation was good news.
"I'm disappointed that publicly he won't accept personal responsibility,'' said McMurry, who represents more than 100 of the plaintiffs suing the Archdiocese of Louisville and accusing priests or other employees of abuse. "I think this is more church spin, but the result is a good result for all the children of the Catholic community.''
McMurry also criticized an attempt by the Archdiocese of Louisville to ask Jefferson Circuit Court to enforce a state law that requires the sealing of sex-abuse lawsuits that involve children and are more than five years old.
"This result would never have occurred if these allegations and the lawsuits were filed under seal,'' McMurry said.
In a suit filed May 21, James W. Bennett of Louisville accused Williams of molesting him once when Bennett was an altar boy around age 12 at the Church of Our Lady in Louisville.
In a second suit filed May 31, plaintiff David Hall said Williams molested him more than 30 years ago in a confessional when Hall was an 18-yearold student at St. Catherine High School in New Haven in Nelson County.
"I think he is finally seeing the writing on the wall,'' said Hall of Williams' decision to resign. "I wasn't glad to hear about it - he did some good. But I think it was only fitting.''
Thomas C. Probus sued the archdiocese Friday, alleging Williams emotionally abused him at age 12 in 1981 with sexually explicit talk when Probus sought advice for family problems.
THE LAWSUITS do not name
Williams as a plaintiff but allege, without evidence, that the archdiocese knew he "engaged in a pattern . . . of sexually abusing children'' and failed to stop it.
Williams has staunchly defended his innocence in previous statements, saying he has "never sexually abused anyone at any time in my life'' and did not know why anyone would say he had.
While the Diocese of Lexington is not a defendant in those lawsuits, it has had other legal troubles. A Lexington lawyer sued it on May 30 on behalf of five unnamed plaintiffs alleging abuse by unidentified priests, while a Lexington man sued June 3 accusing another priest, the Rev. Bill Fedders.
The diocese covers 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky. It has 47,583 Catholics - about 3 percent of the total population in the heavily Protestant region - and 64 parishes, according to the diocese.
Williams' resignation comes two days before American bishops meet in Dallas, where they will face unprecedented attention as they try to decide on proposals to deal with sexual abuse by the clergy. While the controversy has simmered for more than 15 years, it erupted to an unprecedented degree in January following revelations that Boston church officials had knowingly given abusive priests new assignments.
An ad hoc study committee of bishops has recommended defrocking any priest guilty of abusing one child in the future or of abusing more than one child before now, with past abusers allowed to minister only if approved by a committee and their deeds made known to those they would work with in a new assignment.
AT LEAST 225 of the nation's
more than 46,000 Roman Catholic priests have either been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the scandal flared in January, according to The Associated Press. Two have resigned as parish pastors in Louisville.
In March, the Rev. Anthony O'Connell resigned as bishop of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting he abused a seminary student in Missouri more than 25 years ago. O'Connell's predecessor, Bishop J. Keith Symons, also resigned in 1998 after admitting molestation.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles was accused of abuse this year, but police cleared him of the accusation.
And last month, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland's resignation was accepted by the Vatican a day after he acknowledged paying a man $450,000 to settle a sexual misconduct allegation against him. The man was an adult at the time of the alleged misconduct.
The Vatican cited Weakland's age as an explanation. He had submitted a resignation request in April when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 and asked the Vatican to expedite it after the settlement became public.
"It's very, very rare for bishops to resign for any other reason than health or age,'' said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the national Catholic magazine America and a longtime church observer.
CHURCH LAW provides that
after a bishop resigns, a small group of priests in the diocese known as the college of consulters then elects an administrator, who takes care of the diocese but is prohibited from taking new initiatives.
Pope John Paul II would then choose a successor to Williams, drawing from lists of priests recommended for promotion by their own bishops and consulting with his diplomatic representative to the United States, according to the Rev. Mark Spalding, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Louisville and an expert in church law.
At a noontime Mass yesterday at St. Peter Church in downtown Lexington, the Rev. Daniel Noll read Williams' written statement to those in attendance, many of whom had not yet heard the news.
Noll, the sacramental minister at St. Peter, said he was "saddened'' to lose "a great leader and a real minister to us.''
"We've got good priests and good lay people in the diocese. We'll be able to make it.''
Jane Chiles, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said that while she didn't want to comment on the allegations, Williams was a good leader who challenged lay people to take active roles in their churches.
"He had a style that really served us well as the first bishop of a diocese,'' she said. "He was all about empowerment of the laity.''
Neither Louisville police nor Jefferson County Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel's office are investigating Williams, according to people speaking for their offices.
Staff writer Deborah Yetter contributed to this story.
The last three weeks have been the most challenging of my life. As I try to find meaning, an ancient prayer of the church rises within me: Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritu meum. Through agonizing days and sleepless nights, I have thought about the 39 years of my priesthood and the privilege laid upon me. I recognize my shortcomings, but I believe that I have been a good priest and bishop. This makes the allegations against me all the more painful.
My heart is the heart of a priest, and I will always be a priest. My letter to Pope John Paul II expressed my belief that this period of suffering will make me a better person. I dedicated my life to the Gospel 40 years ago, when I was ordained a deacon. My commitment is no less today. I will continue to be a priest and bishop who loves deeply and desires nothing more than to bring others to Jesus. I ask your prayers and thank you for your support.
I do not want my resignation to give any credence to the allegations made against me. I offered my resignation to the Holy Father, stating that I believe that by my stepping down, the diocese can rid itself of the cloud which hangs over it and me at this time.
I agonize that while this process continues, the diocese suffers without a leader. Since no one knows how long this will last, I believe it is best for me to step down, so a new bishop can be appointed as soon as possible. The Holy Father concurs, and my resignation is effective today. This will allow him to begin the process to appoint a new bishop.
My love for this diocese is absolute; I would lay down my life for it. A founding bishop of a diocese forms a bond with the newly formed diocese. During the 14 years of our life together, I feel that this bond has grown even in times of pain and disappointment. My theme has been that of building a family together. I know we have accomplished this, and our success rests upon you, the people of this diocese. You have worked for that unity. By the grace of God, we have become a church, a group of people united in baptism and orders, moving, acting, being Christ and doing all we do in His name. We have much for which to rejoice.
It has been my extreme joy and privilege to serve as your bishop. The first 14 years of our history is a foundation upon which a great church will be built to praise God from one generation to the next. We have, truly, just begun. I pray that you will join hearts and hands with whomever steps in as Administrator and begin working for a better tomorrow. Whenever the Holy Father appoints the Second Bishop of Lexington, welcome him with open arms, as a successor to the Apostles. Be gentle with him and love him, as you love me. Is this not the course charted for us by Jesus himself? RESIGNATIONS THIS YEAR
An archbishop and two bishops of the Roman Catholic Church have resigned this year in connection with sexual abuse allegations: resigned yesterday.He was accused of sexual abuse in three lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Louisville, where he had served as a priest.In a suit filed May 21, Williams,65,was accused of molesting James W. Bennett,33,when he was a 12-year-old altar boy at the Church of Our Lady in Louisville.In a suit filed May 31, David Hall alleged Williams asked him about masturbation in confession and later fondled the senior at St.Catharine High School in New Haven.In a suit filed Friday,Thomas C.Probus alleged that in 1981 Williams asked Probus, then 12,to masturbate and then return to tell the priest about the experience. The suit says the alleged emotional abuse occurred at Holy Trinity Church, but Williams was at that church in 1983 and 1984,according to a summary of his career.
Williams has denied ever abusing anyone. resigned May 24.He acknowledged that he paid a $450,000 settlement to a man who accused Weakland, 75,of sexual abuse.The accuser,Paul Marcoux,53, said he was discussing the possibility of studying for the priesthood when Weakland attempted to assault him in October 1979.Marcoux was a theology student at Marquette University at the time,and said he did not go to police about the matter on the advice of two priests. At the time of his resignation,Weakland denied having abused anyone.
resigned March 8.He admitted molesting a teen-ager at a Missouri seminary more than 25 years ago.O 'Connell, 63,admitted the allegations leveled by Christopher Dixon, now 40.Dixon said the two touched inappropriately when O 'Connell was the rector of St.Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal,Mo.
' 'I was as wrong as I can be in taking that approach
with him and I am sorry,'' O 'Connell said.
BY DEVON MORGAN,THE COURIER-JOURNAL
Eleanor McEllistrem prayed before Mass yesterday at Christ the King Cathedral in Lexington. McEllistrem, a member of Christ the King for 45 years, said of Bishop J. Kendrick Williams, "I believe that he is doing it (resigning) out of the goodness of his heart.'' She called him "a very gracious man.''
The Rev. Daniel Noll, sacramental minister at St. Peter Church in downtown Lexington, read Bishop Williams' statement to those attending Mass yesterday. Noll said he was "saddened'' but added, "We've got good priests and good lay people in the diocese. We'll be able to make it.''
CORRECTION: published June 13, 2002 p.A2 Because of an editor's error, a story yesterday about the resignation of J. Kendrick Williams, bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, was incorrect about the number of U.S. bishops who have resigned this year since a scandal began over past sexual misconduct of priests. The resignation of James F. McCarthy, an auxiliary bishop in the New York Archdiocese, on Tuesday over admission of affairs with women brings the number to four.
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