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  Profile; Supporters Praise Williams for Building Diocese

By Smith Peter
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
June 12, 2002

He grew up in a Central Kentucky region known as the Holy Land because of its rich Catholic heritage.

As a priest, he served a large Catholic population in Louisville before becoming an auxiliary bishop in Covington.

But when the Rev. J. Kendrick Williams was appointed the bishop of the new Diocese of Lexington in 1988, he had to get used to a new reality: a 50county stretch of the Bible Belt where Catholics are few and literally far between.

Kentucky religious leaders said yesterday that Williams rose to the task and leaves a strong legacy as Lexington's first bishop.

Williams, 65, resigned yesterday from the post he held for 14 years, saying he was innocent of sex-abuse allegations but didn't want to leave his diocese without a leader while he deals with the accusations.

Supporters said yesterday that they didn't want to pass judgment on whether the allegations were true, but instead wanted to speak of his accomplishments in building the diocese.

Williams encouraged joint ventures with area Protestants who far outnumber Catholics, and he inspired people in the pews to step up to leadership roles, other religious leaders said.

"He awakened something within us and caused us to dig deeper, and we found ourselves in service to the church in a way that was no longer about just going to Mass on Sunday," said Jane Chiles, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the denomination's public-policy advocacy group.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said Williams developed strong ties with Protestants and also encouraged Catholic women to play important roles in the diocese.

"HE HAS BEEN a liberating in-

fluence," she said. "That's why it's so hard to see him resign under these circumstances."

The circumstances involve three lawsuits filed in recent weeks against the Archdiocese of Louisville by men alleging that Williams abused them sexually or emotionally decades ago, when he was a priest in that archdiocese.

In a written statement, Williams maintained his innocence and said he has agonized in sleepless nights over the allegations.

"This period of suffering will make me a better person," he said. "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."

That desire was kindled in his youth.

James Kendrick Williams was born in LaRue County and attended high school in Bardstown, a heavily Catholic city steeped in its history as center of a vast pioneer diocese.

Williams was ordained a priest in the Louisville archdiocese in 1963.

According to a copy of his curriculum vitae on file at The Courier-Journal, Williams was associate pastor or pastor at St. Rita Church, the Church of Our Lady and Holy Trinity in Louisville and St. Catherine Church in New Haven. He also held archdiocesan administrative jobs before moving to Covington as auxiliary bishop in 1983.

Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Lexington in 1988 and assigned Williams as its first bishop.

The diocese was carved out of 43 counties that had been in the Diocese of Covington and seven that were in the Archdiocese of Louisville. The territory ranges from the urban parishes of Lexington - such as the Cathedral of Christ the King with its 2,812 households - to tiny mountain parishes and rural communities where Hispanic migrant farm workers attend Mass.

According to the Lexington diocese, the 47,583 Catholics amount to only 3 percent of the total population in the heavily Protestant region. The diocese has 64 parishes and 40 priests, though priests from other dioceses and religious orders also work in it.

IN A DIOCESE that lacks a

Catholic university, Williams struck a partnership in 1988 with Lexington Theological Seminary in which Catholic students can earn master of arts degrees in pastoral studies or religious education, training them for roles as lay leaders and deacons.

So far, 15 people have graduated from the programs and 17 are enrolled, according to the seminary, which is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

"It's been a very beneficial thing to them and us," seminary spokesman Walter Johnson said.

Williams also helped lead a theological dialogue between Catholic and Southern Baptist leaders that lasted several years until the latter group decided to end it in 2001. The dialogue was of particular interest in Kentucky, where the denominations are the two largest religious groups.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Baptist representative to the dialogue, said Williams "was socially gracious even in the midst of the theological differences."

The issue of alleged sexual abuse by priests arose more than once during Williams' tenure.

Earlier this year, Williams and the bishop of Joliet, Ill., suspended a Joliet-based priest from his Kentucky parish pending an investigation into sexual abuse allegations. And in recent weeks, the Lexington diocese was named in two lawsuits alleging abuse by priests.

IN 1994, Williams directly ad-

dressed the issue of abuse in an apology at a church where a monsignor had abused children.

"To any person who has suffered abuse by a person in ministry, I want you to know my apology. I am sorry for the indignity you have suffered by a trusted member of our church," he said as the Mass began.

Williams spoke of fears that other priests have voiced more recently in an era when many new allegations are coming forward.

"I am afraid to touch a child. Even when I stand in a crowded parish hall and a child comes up and wraps his arms around me and says, 'I love you,' I fear."

He said that fear has tempered his ability to help victims of abuse.

"Sometimes I am afraid to act because I'm afraid what I do might hurt you deeper," he said.

J. KENDRICK

WILLIAMS

Position: Former bishop of

the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington

Age: 65

Born: Sept. 5, 1936,

Athertonville, LaRue County

Ordained: May 25, 1963,

Archdiocese of Louisville

Education: Old Kentucky

Home High School, Bardstown, 1954 graduation; St. Mary's College, St. Mary, 1959 graduation; St. Maur's School of Theology, South Union, 1963 graduation. Graduate work in guidance and counseling, Spalding College, 1964-65. Various workshops and institutes.

Professional: St. Rita

Church, Louisville, associate pastor, 1963-1965; St. Catherine Church, New Haven, associate pastor, high school teacher, counselor, 1965-71; Archdiocese of Louisville Office of Religious Education, associate director, 1971-78; four rural parishes, vicar of education, 1971-72; rural office of religious education, director, 1972-78; archdiocesan planning office, director, and Church of Our Lady, associate pastor, 197883; clergy personnel commission, director, 198084; Holy Trinity Church, pastor, 1983-84; Diocese of Covington, auxiliary bishop, 1984-88; 1988-present, bishop of Diocese of Lexington.

Contact: psmith@courier-journal.com

 
 

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