Pondering His Fall Within the Church
Priest Offers Defense, Plans to Appeal
By Caryle Murphy
September 15, 2002
He is living in his childhood home, the brick duplex in Northeast Washington where he made his final decision to become a Roman Catholic priest. He's reluctant to go out in public, fearful he might run into old friends. And for the first time in his 54 years, Monsignor Russell L. Dillard is looking for a job.
But the former pastor of St. Augustine's, the capital's largest African American Catholic parish, said that what most consumes him is wondering how he ended up this way. He wonders how it could be that, after devoting most of his life to the church, he is now barred from ministry and regarded as a pariah.
"Right now, I feel like I'm nothing . . . and after 24 years of trying to do the best I could do, looking forward to my 25th anniversary [as a priest], I never thought that I would feel like garbage," Dillard said, his voice becoming a whisper. "I never thought that I could say that the church doesn't want me."
The Archdiocese of Washington removed Dillard from St. Augustine's in March after two women said he had kissed and fondled them in the early 1980s, when they were teenagers and he was youth minister at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Northeast Washington. Last month, he was formally dismissed from active ministry by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick.
During the recent interview, the first one he has given since he left St. Augustine's, Dillard said he plans to appeal his dismissal to the Vatican on the grounds that his rights of due process were violated. He contends that the archdiocese did not conduct a proper investigation of the women's allegations and did not give him a full opportunity to defend himself.
Dillard said his contact with the two teenagers was not sexual in nature. He said he sometimes kissed them quickly on the lips as a gesture of fatherly affection, just as he would do with other girls in the church's youth club.
He now realizes that that behavior was inappropriate, Dillard said. But he argued that he does not deserve to be put in the same category as a serial pedophile, as U.S. Catholic bishops effectively did in June when they adopted a policy of "zero tolerance" for priestly sexual misconduct involving minors.
"One thing I want to make very clear: I'm not a sexual abuser," Dillard said. "And I'm not a person who uses people, especially children, in any way that would be to their detriment. . . . Mine was inappropriate behavior, not child sex abuse."
Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she could not discuss Dillard's criticisms or other aspects of the case in detail because of the ongoing church legal process. But she denied that his due process rights under canon law were violated.
"Monsignor Dillard has been fully informed and is fully aware of the allegations," Gibbs said. "They were clearly presented to him in accord with canon law, and he's had the opportunity to discuss them with the archdiocese. . . . We are following canon law very carefully."
Dillard's two accusers, who are sisters, strongly dispute his statement that his actions toward them were not sexual.
In an interview she gave in March soon after Dillard's suspension, Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, 36, said that she and Dillard would spend hours at a time alone together in the sitting room off his rectory bedroom, often kissing intensely, and that "he pretty much was my boyfriend for four years." Barrett-Gaines is now an assistant professor of African history at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Barrett-Gaines's younger sister, who has asked not to be named, said in a recent interview that she approached Dillard for help with a problem after her sister had left Washington to attend college in New York.
"He proceeded to take me in his lap and kiss my tears away," she said. On numerous occasions over the next three years, she said, Dillard would kiss her "softly, tenderly, over and over" on her lips and feel her legs while cuddling her in his lap.
"I didn't know it was abuse then. He was my priest. I just thought, 'This is what I have to put up with,' " she said.
"I haven't forgiven Father Dillard, but I'm trying," she said, adding that after many years of not attending church, she has started to do so again, partly because of the archdiocese's quick response to her accusations.
The document adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at its June meeting in Dallas -- in response to the church's sex abuse scandal that erupted in January -- requires the permanent dismissal of a priest who has engaged in a single act of child sexual abuse. It defines such abuse as any act in which an adult uses a minor as an object of sexual gratification, whether or not the act involves physical force or genital contact.
Dillard is among at least 300 priests who have resigned or been removed from their duties by U.S. bishops since January. Like him, an increasing number of these priests are fighting back, some by filing defamation suits against their accusers, others by appealing through the church's legal system to the Vatican.
Dillard said he has completed the first stage in the appeal process, which is a request to McCarrick to reconsider his decision to remove Dillard from ministry. McCarrick has 30 days to reply. If the cardinal will not reconsider, Dillard said, he will appeal to the Vatican, a process that could last up to a year.
McCarrick's decision followed the finding of an archdiocesan lay review board that the allegations against Dillard were credible and constituted sexual abuse as defined by the bishops in Dallas.
Asked about his relationship with Barrett-Gaines, Dillard said in the recent interview that he did spend "a lot of time" with her because she lived close to the church. But he added that because he was the parish's designated "kid priest," there were "always kids . . . up in my room."
"There was never any kissing like boyfriend-girlfriend," Dillard said. "I met her boyfriends. She would bring me her boyfriends. So how could I be her boyfriend?"
Dillard said that he and Barrett-Gaines's sister had the "friendship of a pastor to a parishioner" and that "I probably did kiss her tears away. As far as the other stuff is concerned, rubbing her legs, no."
He said both women are "misperceiving, misinterpreting" the affection he showed many young girls to build their self-esteem and provide them with a healthy male role model. "I've done the same thing with so many other people," he said. "Why with these people it's become a sexual thing, I don't understand."
Dillard said that when he was confronted with the women's allegations by Auxiliary Bishop Kevin J. Farrell in March, "I kept saying, 'This was not sexual, it was not romantic.'
"And he kept saying, 'She's a minor. She's a minor.' That mantra was being said to me. So when I left there, I'm convinced I crossed the line because she's a minor, and you can't do that with a minor."
Dillard was then ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation at St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, a facility for troubled clergy. "It said there was no pathology, like pedophilia," he said. "It said good things about me as a priest, hard-working and sometimes overly so."
Gibbs, the archdiocese's spokeswoman, said confidentiality rules prevented her from discussing Dillard's evaluation.
The 10-member lay review board met Aug. 7. Dillard said that although he'd been told he could speak to the board for 15 minutes and had written out his remarks, he was informed when he arrived that he had only five minutes. The board did not go over the allegations with him, and no one took notes while he spoke, he said. "To be honest with you," he said, "I'm not even sure why I was there."
Gibbs said that when considering such cases, the review board typically is given all the information the archdiocese has compiled, but "it is free to request additional information, ask questions or conduct its own investigation."
Dillard said that when McCarrick and Farrell informed him of his dismissal on Aug. 19, they rejected his request to see the board's report.
"I just kept saying, 'How did they get there?' " he recalled. "If there was an investigation, it was only on the side of the persons who made the allegations. . . . Nobody on my side was asked anything."
In newspaper interviews last spring, several people who were in St. Anthony's youth ministry at the same time as Barrett-Gaines and her sister expressed skepticism about their allegations, saying they had not noticed anything unusual about Dillard's relationship with the two girls. Contacted last week, all of them said that they had not been interviewed by the archdiocese.
Dillard said that the policies adopted by the bishops in Dallas are too sweeping. "Certainly, any priest who is a pedophile should not be in active ministry at all," he said. But "when you use one brush and paint everybody the same, then there's bound to be a modicum of unfairness in the outcome. What Dallas did was to codify that unfairness."
Bishops seem to have forgotten, Dillard added, that "there's supposed to be something in our fraternity . . . based upon a change that took place in us when hands were laid on us [during ordination] that says, 'I don't throw a brother priest away.' . . . I'm sure if I had been in a black denomination, there would have been forgiveness to me."
For now, the archdiocese still gives him his salary of about $ 1,000 a month and health benefits. But he said he is looking for a job, "something fulfilling, working with people, with the less fortunate," he said. "Flipping burgers would not be my choice."
He has no plans to join another denomination or leave the Catholic Church to set up his own congregation, because "I believe in the Roman Catholic Church, I believe in the sacraments, in the doctrine," said Dillard, who converted from the Baptist faith to Catholicism when he was 12.
He added: "I have my faith. And I hope I have my integrity. I'm still thinking that God's in charge of all this. And my confidence in Christ is that everything is going to be all right. I don't know what that means. But I think everything is going to be all right."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.