Accused Priest Stayed in Ministry
Tulsa Bishop Had Pushed 'Zero Tolerance' in Molestation Cases
By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
July 28, 2002
Tulsa, Okla. — As clergy abuse scandals raged elsewhere a few months ago, Catholic leaders here spoke out forcefully. They criticized other dioceses for protecting molesters; they said that none of their active-duty priests had ever been accused; they said that they screen and rescreen employees, aiming to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.
"We need to be ultrasafe - to have zero tolerance - in order to protect children," Bishop Edward Slattery told the Tulsa World in March.
Privately, however, he was keeping on the job a pastor who had been accused of inappropriate behavior with several boys, sent to a treatment center in 1994 and then moved to new parishes. He kept the Rev. Kenneth Lewis on the job until last weekend, despite new allegations of early-1990s misconduct and the vote by U.S. bishops last month to crack down further on abuse.
Bishop Slattery was in Canada for the pope's visit and unavailable this weekend, his office said. The Tulsa Diocese's chancellor and communications director, Dr. Henry Harder, said that Father Lewis had requested a leave of absence and that he didn't know why. Father Lewis did not respond to requests for comment.
Dr. Harder acknowledged that the priest had been the subject of internal investigations in 1994 and again this summer, which he said found "nothing actionable" under church law or criminal law. Thus, he said, no report was made to police or child-welfare officials.
One of Father Lewis' accusers, former ministerial co-worker Evelyn McMahon, said she told top diocesan officials eight years ago that she had twice found him alone with sixth- and seventh-grade boys, rubbing their backs. One, she said, was sitting on his lap; the other was lying in bed with him, clothed.
A third boy sometimes went with Father Lewis to the priest's residence after classes let out at the Church of St. Mary's school in Tulsa, Ms. McMahon said she reported. She said he expressed a special fondness for that boy and had a picture on his bedroom wall of him, as a toddler, taking a bath. She relayed the priest's account of taking two youngsters to an R-rated movie with nudity and a student's account of the priest questioning classmates, in front of their peers, about their sexuality.
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who heads a national review board the bishops formed recently to monitor their compliance with their new abuse policies, reacted angrily when told that the allegations had not been reported to law enforcement.
"These are precisely the kinds of incidents our national board wants referred to civil authorities," said the governor, a former federal prosecutor who is Catholic and grew up in Tulsa. "This is precisely the kind of person who shouldn't be within 150 yards of a child."
The incidents should be investigated for potential criminal conduct, Mr. Keating said.
Bishop Slattery approved counseling payments years ago for at least one family, to whom he recently wrote and expressed "sorrow and regret for all the suffering" that resulted from a son's "unfortunate encounter" with Father Lewis.
The diocese used similar language this summer in agreeing to pay for another young man's anxiety medication, its correspondence shows. That youth said that Father Lewis, shortly after arriving at St. Mary's a decade ago, initiated physical contact with him and several schoolmates.
"He'd come out to recess and wrestle with all the guys," the young man recalled. "He was the guy everybody loved."
He said the priest became especially close with a few boys, drove them around in his car and gradually found occasions to massage them, in increasingly intimate ways. The young man said that in his case, Father Lewis sometimes put his hand near his genitals but that he could not remember being touched there.
"He said he was molested when he was younger by a Scoutmaster," the youth said. "He said, 'I know how it feels to be hurt. Tell me if I go too far.'"
Since returning home from last month's historic meeting in Dallas, bishops have been interpreting their new "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" in quite different ways. Some have picked up where they left off before the session, reviewing personnel files and dismissing offenders. Some who hadn't been moving aggressively have started to act.
Meanwhile, according to published reports, the bishop of Brooklyn, N.Y., has kept at least one accused priest on the job, and the Richmond, Va., bishop recently reinstated one without advice from most members of a diocesan panel that is supposed to review abuse cases.
In Tulsa, Father Lewis' accusers have raised concerns about whether the diocese is following the spirit of openness promised by the bishops' charter. Parishioners were given no explanation for Father Lewis' exit last weekend from St. John the Evangelist Church, in the southeastern Oklahoma town of McAlester.
The reason for the departure, Dr. Harder said in an interview, is confidential. Later, in a news release, he said the priest sought a leave for "personal reasons."
Two parents who have long complained about Father Lewis said that shortly before the resignation, an aide to Bishop Slattery told them that the explanation could be "personal medical reasons." Enraged, they said they threatened to take their allegations to a prosecutor.
The bishops' charter says that secrecy can enable further abuse, and it calls for "a communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness."
At the McAlester church, youth director Tracy Matthews described Father Lewis as "a wonderful priest" who had worked hard to start a youth program. She said she had never been told about the allegations against him and didn't believe that his departure had anything to do with them.
The parents who had threatened to go to prosecutors said a priest assigned to conduct the recent internal investigation told them that he had found no evidence of Father Lewis having genital contact with boys. But the Rev. Michael Knipe, they said, indicated that there was enough circumstantial evidence of inappropriate behavior for the bishop to press the priest into resigning and taking a permanent leave from the priesthood.
The parents also said Father Knipe told them another young man had complained this summer of past misconduct by Father Lewis. The same day, they said, the diocese's No. 2 official, the Rev. Dennis Dorney, told them that they were the only family to complain.
Father Knipe declined to comment. Through Dr. Harder, Father Dorney also declined to comment. "Both of them could have been telling the truth as they knew it," Dr. Harder said, suggesting that Father Dorney may not have been privy to Father Knipe's investigation.
The parents said they fought for years to get action and decided to speak out now because Bishop Slattery refused their requests to deal with the situation forthrightly. They asked that their names not be published to protect their son, who was a grade-schooler when Ms. McMahon found him in bed with Father Lewis.
The son spoke briefly with The Dallas Morning News, confirming Ms. McMahon's account and adding that he had resisted the priest's pressure to take off his shirt. "He tried to trap me," said the youth. "He got caught."
Earlier this year, the family asked the diocese for $ 80,000 in compensation. The bishop refused, but the mother said she did not want to sue.
"We just want the truth out," she said. "Parents need to know this for their children."
Ms. McMahon, after The News located her in another state, gave similar reasons for agreeing to an interview. She also said she wanted to clear her name, alleging that Father Lewis had disparaged her to parishioners after she went to the diocese.
Beyond the issue of openness, other questions raised by the Lewis situation are not fully addressed by the bishops' charter. How broadly, for example, will church leaders interpret its definition of abuse? Must a victim directly level an accusation for an internal investigation to proceed, as bishops have often insisted in the past? In the interest of preventing abuse, how should bishops respond to suspicious conduct? At what point should an accused priest be suspended?
The parents of the boy found in bed with Father Lewis long pressed to get him kept away from children. They said diocesan officials insisted nothing could be done because they lacked evidence of overt sexual contact: The priest denied it, the child wasn't talking, and Ms. McMahon saw no nudity or groping.
In discussing what constitutes abuse, the charter says in a footnote that it "need not be a complete act of intercourse." The footnote also refers to a Canadian bishops' document that says abuse includes situations "when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult whether or not it involves genital or physical contact."
A young man who first complained to the diocese this summer - the one who is taking anxiety medication - said some of his encounters with Father Lewis had clear sexual overtones. Once, he said, the priest sat with him and another boy, rubbing their chests. The next day, "he called us into his office and said, 'I had an erection last night when I was sitting in between you.'"
Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer who has been consulted but not retained by one Tulsa family, said the charter "fails to place proper focus on abuse prevention and on early detection of actual and potential abusers." Instead, she said, it places more emphasis on what bishops should do after a victim complains - even though "the vast majority of victims never come forward" and most of the rest do so only many years later.
In an article published by the Tulsa World earlier this year, Bishop Slattery and another diocesan leader said that preventing abuse is extremely difficult.
"A man can be apparently normal in every way except this," the bishop was quoted as saying. "There's no way to tell."
Ms. Demarest, who has won several major settlements in clergy abuse cases, said there are often abundant warning signs. She advocates a public code of conduct for priests that prohibits "special friendships, dinners alone, presents, sleepovers and unsupervised out-of-town trips."
Dr. Harder said he didn't know if the Tulsa Diocese has such a code. He said it is in the process of forming a local board of lay people to review abuse allegations, similar to the national body headed by Mr. Keating, the Oklahoma governor.
Asked why Father Lewis was not suspended during the recent internal investigation, Dr. Harder said: "I don't know that there was any credible allegation that would've required that." Diocesan policy requires immediate suspension of "anyone accused of sexual or other physical abuse of a minor." The bishops' new national policy calls for it "when the preliminary investigation so indicates."
Stumbled on back rub
Ms. McMahon said she first alerted church leaders about Father Lewis almost a decade ago, when she was a youth minister at the Church of St. Mary and stumbled upon the bedroom back rub.
She said the priest quickly put on his shoes, bolted from the house without explanation and drove off in his car. The boy, she said, appeared fearful and said little.
A few days later, after consulting another priest, Ms. McMahon reported what she'd seen to her boss, the Rev. Paul Eichhoff. He was pastor of St. Mary's at the time, and Father Lewis was associate pastor.
Ms. McMahon said that Father Eichhoff promised to confront Father Lewis immediately. But the associate pastor stayed on duty and soon was angrily confronting her, she said.
Shortly thereafter, she said, Father Eichhoff threatened to fire her if she talked about the matter to anyone. To her regret, she said, "I sat on it," and didn't contact civil authorities or the boy's parents.
Father Eichhoff, who is now serving a different parish, did not respond to an interview request. Dr. Harder said he told diocese employees to refer all media inquiries about Father Lewis to him. He said he was unfamiliar with Ms. McMahon's allegations because he wasn't working in the diocese at that time.
Some months later, in continuing distress, Ms. McMahon quit her job and left town. Before long, she learned that Father Eichhoff had suddenly left the parish - and that Father Lewis had been put in charge.
"I had a panic attack," Ms. McMahon said. "Father Ken was going to be there at the rectory all by himself."
She asked to talk with Bishop Slattery but instead was directed to a meeting with some of his top aides, at which she repeated her account of the bedroom scene and described the other concerns she had about Father Lewis' behavior with boys. Then, a year after she had seen the priest in the boy's bed, she finally told the child's parents.
The parents said they were furious and felt betrayed. But now, at least, they felt they had an explanation for changes they'd seen in their son - including a decline in his school performance and his problems sleeping.
Soon, they were demanding Father Lewis' removal. Bishop Slattery sent the priest to a treatment center in late 1994 without telling parishioners why and gave him what the parents called "a heroic sendoff" at a final Mass.
Father Lewis "got a standing ovation," the mother said. "It was amazing. It was awful."
Several months later, the parents learned that the priest was being reassigned to Tulsa's cathedral as an associate pastor, and they complained again.
"The bishop told me, 'Your son was never in jeopardy,'" the boy's father said. "I said, 'I don't buy that.'"
Diocesan officials, the parents said, also assured them that Father Lewis was being closely monitored. Yet afterward, they said, they sometimes saw him - or heard from friends about him - spending time around boys from his previous parish.
Subsequently, he ended up working without on-site supervision, first as pastor of some rural parishes northwest of Tulsa and more recently in McAlester.
"Here's this bishop who continually endangered children," said Ms. McMahon, who has left the Catholic Church. "He had the power to take him out, to get these kids out of harm's way, and he didn't."
The youth who is taking anxiety medication said he has had great difficulty forming friendships, isn't comfortable touching or being touched, and became suicidal earlier this year. He, too, has left the church.
"I thought my diocese was different," he said. "But it's not."
Staff writer Reese Dunklin contributed to this report.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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