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  Police Begin Inquiry into Tulsa Diocese
Bishop Didn't Report Allegations; Priest Denies Sexual Misconduct

By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News
July 31, 2002

On DallasNews.com Tulsa, Okla. — Police here said Tuesday that they had begun investigating sexual misconduct allegations against a Catholic priest, as well as the Diocese of Tulsa's handling of the matter.

Authorities said it was not yet clear whether church leaders were required by law to report the allegations against the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, first brought to them eight years ago. "But why not err on the side of protection of children," said Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris.

Tulsa police join a growing list of law enforcement agencies around the country that have launched investigations into how their dioceses have dealt with allegations of sexual misconduct by priests or other church officials.

The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday that Tulsa Bishop Edward Slattery sent Father Lewis to treatment and then returned him to work, allowing him to serve in parishes until last week.

Father Lewis addressed the accusations publicly for the first time Tuesday, saying that he had "never done anything which could be considered sexual contact or molestation."

Bishop Slattery, meanwhile, said in a news conference that Father Lewis' conduct was "clearly inappropriate," and he apologized for returning him to duty in the mid-1990s. But he said the behavior did not constitute sexual abuse and thus did not need to be reported to police or child-welfare officials.

Tulsa police Sgt. Liz Woollen said officers would investigate whether the diocese broke the law by not alerting authorities to allegations it received from Evelyn McMahon, who at the time worked with Father Lewis at the Church of St. Mary in Tulsa.

Ms. McMahon told The News that she told top diocesan officials that she had twice found the priest 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.

Mr. Harris said the diocese's failure to promptly report the allegations "creates suspicion" and will make it harder to investigate the case.

Earlier this week, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national victims' group, accused Bishop Slattery and other bishops of not following the U.S. church's new policy on sexual abuse.

The policy, approved at a historic bishops meeting in June, requires church leaders to report sexual misconduct allegations to authorities - even if the alleged victim is no longer a minor. The document's definition of abuse includes behavior that is not "a complete act of intercourse."

Tulsa diocesan officials also acknowledged Tuesday that they were dealing with complaints against two other priests.

A teenage girl went public this week with allegations that a foreign priest, who was assigned to the diocese, had fondled her in 1999 and that church administrators had told her family at the time to keep quiet until the man could return to his home country.

Diocesan officials said the priest's sudden departure that year was unrelated to the girl's accusations and that they had considered the reported behavior inappropriate, but not abuse.

Late Tuesday afternoon, diocese Chancellor Henry Harder said a new accusation against a third priest involved possible misconduct 25 years ago. He said he could not comment further.

'Inappropriate behavior'

Bishop Slattery said he returned Father Lewis to duty in the mid-1990s based on recommendations from a treatment center to which he had sent the priest.

"I now believe that I should never have placed Father Lewis in any position which might have placed any young person at risk," the bishop said, reading from a prepared statement. "I take responsibility for not having correctly read all the signs of Father Lewis' inappropriate behavior."

Meanwhile, in a separate news conference, Father Lewis said he was "not guilty of any wrongdoing, except perhaps indiscretion within the context of societal sensitivities." He said he had treated his young parishioners in the same physically affectionate, appropriate way in which he'd been raised.

"Until recently, I had always been praised and affirmed for my ability to reach out in this way toward others," Father Lewis said, also reading from a statement. "Unfortunately, times have changed. Because of problems in our society, there is a heightened fear of any affection being shown toward young people."

His attorney, Clark Brewster, answered all questions for the priest. He said his client was the victim of a media "witch hunt."

Addressing specific allegations, the lawyer said that the boy Ms. McMahon saw in Father Lewis' lap was simply being consoled over a death in his family. The boy she saw in bed with him, Mr. Brewster said, had invited the priest to join him there to play a joke on Ms. McMahon.

Dallas lawyer Sylvia Demarest, who has handled several major clergy abuse lawsuits, was in Tulsa on Tuesday to consult with some families who have complained about Father Lewis and the diocese. She labeled the aggressive public defense offered by the priest and his attorney "a standard intimidation technique designed to prevent more people from coming forward."

Ms. Demarest said she had spoken with three young men who accused Father Lewis of touching their genitals, including one who said he was molested before the priest's 1991 ordination. Two of the three plan to meet with police soon, she said.

Diocesan leaders said no one had ever reported such allegations to them.

Restrictions on priest

Bishop Slattery said that Father Lewis, since returning from treatment, had been under orders never to be alone with children. About two months ago, he was also ordered not to take overnight excursions with children even if other adults were present, the bishop's aides said.

Diocesan leaders said that as far as they knew, Father Lewis had never violated those orders or engaged in any inappropriate behavior since his therapy.

"However," Bishop Slattery said, "it was clear to me that Father Lewis' continued ministry as a priest had been seriously compromised." During recent discussions about his future, he said, the priest decided to quit.

Father Lewis said he resigned as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, in the southeastern Oklahoma town of McAlester, "due to the reality of the world in which we live today."

"There is presently a kind of national guilt feeling in the Catholic Church in America about abuses that have been tolerated, excused and in some cases hidden," he said.

His situation, he said, had given the diocese a chance "to express its regret and sorrow over what has happened nationally. I join in that regret, but I, personally, am not guilty of any wrongdoing."

Elsewhere Tuesday, a lay board set up by bishops to monitor their compliance with the new policy met for the first time in Washington, D.C., and sought to assure victims that they would be heard.

The board, headed by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, met with four leaders of SNAP and promised to spend part of its September meeting listening to victims of clergy abuse. SNAP had criticized the makeup of the panel last week and its exclusion from it, but at least one group member said he and others were pleased with Tuesday's meetings.

Staff writer Reese Dunklin in Dallas contributed to this report.

 
 

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