Scandal on a Wealthy Island: A Priest, a Murder and a Mystery

New York Times [New York NY]

February 4, 2022

By Amanda M. Fairbanks

The Rev. Canon Paul Wancura led a quiet, privileged life. But after his shocking death, a sexual abuse allegation followed.

Not much happens of note on Shelter Island, all 8,000 bucolic acres of it. Sandwiched between Long Island’s North and South Forks, it’s the kind of place where people seem to know one another, where car doors are often left unlocked and where, for some 20 years, the most bothersome problem has been Lyme disease-carrying blacklegged ticks.

But much of that changed in March 2018, when the Rev. Charles McCarron was asked to check in on another clergyman who had recently been commuting to a town on Long Island as a fill-in priest. He had failed to show up at church that day.

Father McCarron drove to the man’s white house with forest-green shutters in Silver Beach, a quiet Shelter Island neighborhood known for expensive second homes. When he pulled into the driveway, the garage door was wide open. He walked into the unlocked home and called out for his colleague.

“Help! Help!” came shouts in response, which he followed to the master bedroom, where a giant crucifix — large enough to be the centerpiece in a church — hung over the bed.

There, he found the Rev. Canon Paul Wancura, 87, lying facedown on the hardwood floor, wedged between the bed and a wall, his wrists and ankles bound with zip ties.

Father Wancura, who the authorities believe had been bound for several days, was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, where his left hand was amputated. Over the coming weeks, he developed sepsis and died in mid-April.

The event shocked Shelter Islanders, who were accustomed to only petty crimes, and who hadn’t seen a murder since 1998. But it also got people in the community talking: Who would torture an octogenarian holy man? Was there more to this story?

As local residents have tried to make sense of the violent crime, a recent allegation of sexual abuse has added a layer of uncertainty to the unsolved case, which continues to baffle Father Wancura’s former parishioners and the police alike.

Built in 1729, Caroline Episcopal Church of Setauket, on the North Shore of Long Island, is the oldest operating Episcopal church in the area. Its white steeple still has bullet holes from the Revolutionary War. Before Emancipation, slaves worshiped in its rear, upstairs gallery.

From the mid-1970s through the ’90s, Father Wancura led the parish at Caroline, performing baptisms, sermons and weddings and leading three services every Sunday. So it seemed fitting that his own funeral and burial would take place there. He now shares a joint headstone with his wife, Helena Rommel Wancura, who died 11 years before him, in the graveyard that surrounds the historic building, with its red door, wood shingles and gabled roof.

Several current and former Caroline Church parishioners interviewed for this article remember Father Wancura as something of an eccentric bon vivant. He was social, often enjoying cocktail hours with his neighbors when he lived in the parsonage. But he was also emotionally distant, they said, and he had some personality quirks that left an impression, like a faux British accent, despite his being a Long Islander.

Katie Harrison, who in the 1980s was married in the church by Father Wancura, recalled his penchant for Bombay Sapphire gin and his haunting blue eyes. “When he stared at you, it felt like he was looking through you.”

Father Wancura’s wife had inherited a good deal of money, some of which the couple used to buy a weekend home on Shelter Island, where they eventually retired. After she died, the priest kept to himself, retaining the image of a well-dressed older man with a few slightly odd flourishes. A neighbor said Father Wancura liked to drive his wife’s old convertible, tooting the horn when he passed the neighbor’s house, despite the fact that they barely knew each other.

“He was a visible island character,” Father McCarron said. “Wherever he went, he was always put together — elegant and proper.”

He wasn’t the type to drop by local gathering spots like The Chequit, an old inn popular with year-round residents, according to Father McCarron, who said he would visit the older priest instead at his home, which was never a casual affair. Father McCarron knew better than to bring a bag of potato chips, he said, opting instead for pâté, toast and cornichons. Once, he recalled Father Wancura greeting him at the door wearing a blazer with brass buttons and an ascot.

For most people, Father Wancura seemed a traditional yet entertaining and slightly offbeat clergyman in the old-style Episcopal mold. He appeared to be respected, but not particularly well-known or understood by congregants, those interviewed said.

But Lew H. Crispin III, who grew up in Setauket from 1975 to 1990 and attended Caroline Church for much of his childhood, has a darker perspective on the priest. He contends that Father Wancura abused him for years inside the church and in public, describing the priest greeting churchgoers on the lawn after his sermons, when he would assert his power over the boy. “He would make it look like he was imparting a blessing on me, while simultaneously pressing his erection into me,” Mr. Crispin said.

Last August, more than three years after Father Wancura’s death, Mr. Crispin filed a civil complaint against three parties, including the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and Caroline Church. He is seeking $20 million in damages. He said a friend of a friend, who was sexually abused as a child while attending St. David’s, an all-boys Catholic school in Manhattan, encouraged Mr. Crispin to come forward.

“I find it hard to believe this only happened to me,” said Mr. Crispin, now 51, in a Zoom interview last fall. Gil Santamarina, his lawyer, was also on the call. “The problem is bigger than me and what happened to me,” Mr. Crispin said. “I want the culture of the Caroline Church to be exposed.”

Each of the three defendants has separate legal counsel. Philip C. Semprevivo, Jr., a lawyer representing the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church, said he “refused to comment on ongoing litigation.” Dennis M. Perlberg, representing the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, similarly declined to comment. James Weller, the chief legal officer for the local diocese, did not respond to emails or telephone calls.

And despite repeated attempts to reach the attorneys representing Caroline Church, they never responded.

At 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, with a salt-and-pepper beard, Mr. Crispin is an imposing presence, even through a computer monitor. Still, he exuded a vulnerability and gentleness. Looking back, he finds it hard to believe that an adult wouldn’t have noticed the repeated close contact between the priest and a minor and not realized that something was seriously amiss.

The early trauma eventually bled into every facet of Mr. Crispin’s life, he said. He has struggled with substance abuse and problems controlling his anger, plus bouts of depression and homelessness. Though he is now sober and lives in North Carolina, working with people in recovery, Mr. Crispin was not able to hold down a regular job until his mid-40s, let alone establish a lasting romantic relationship, he said. The thought of having his own children fills him with terror.

When Mr. Crispin first heard the news of Father Wancura’s killing, it filled him with regret. “I’m sorry he’s dead,” Mr. Crispin said. “I wanted to see him go to jail as an 80-year-old child molester.”

In December Mr. Semprevivo’s law firm filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Mr. Crispin and his attorney hadn’t presented a sufficient case. Mr. Crispin’s lawyer filed a motion opposing that argument. Last month, lawyers representing the Long Island diocese and Caroline Church filed additional motions to dismiss the case, asserting, among other things, that their clients weren’t liable for any alleged sexual abuse Father Wancura committed.

All parties are now waiting for a judge to decide whether the case will proceed.

Growing up in the upper-middle-class hamlet of Setauket, Mr. Crispin long felt like an outsider. His mother was single and spent several years severely handicapped after an accident. His family depended on charity and handouts to make ends meet. The first and only time he told his mother he had been abused was as a teenager. She said she “didn’t believe me and that we were never to speak about it again,” he said. Her reaction shamed him into staying silent.

It took years for Mr. Crispin to speak of the subject again. By then it was the 1990s, he was in his early 20s, and he was working as a chef. One night, he cooked dinner at the home of a childhood friend on Long Island, and he remembered being a little tipsy. After the meal, he started talking with one of the guests, a therapist based in Stony Brook. The conversation turned to Caroline Church.

“Paul Wancura is not a good man,” Mr. Crispin recalled telling the therapist, before going outside and vomiting. The therapist, who asked not to be identified because she still lives in the area and occasionally attends services at Caroline, confirmed the encounter. She added that another local priest, the Rev. Canon John W. Davis, a family friend, later shared with her that the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island was aware of Father Wancura’s possibly abusive behavior, echoing the allegations made by Mr. Crispin that night and many years later, in his lawsuit. Father Davis died in 2005.

About two years ago, Mr. Crispin said, he started seeing an expert in a type of therapy that helped him unearth memories of the abuse. Last month, he shared some of these memories, which he said had been repressed, with his lawyer, Mr. Santamarina: When Mr. Crispin was around 8 years old, Father Wancura led him to the church basement and asked him to play with the priest’s penis until he ejaculated.

Mr. Crispin said the abuse continued on and off until he was 13. Sessions in the basement turned into forced oral sex, he said. And during the final year of abuse in 1983, after choir rehearsals for a Christmas Eve Mass, Father Wancura raped him on multiple occasions in a room behind the altar, Mr. Crispin claimed. As a consequence, Mr. Crispin said that he had difficulty controlling his bowel movements for years thereafter.

The boy had promised his mother that he would stay with the church until he was confirmed, and he did, although he quit the choir and stopped attending services. In 1985, at age 15, he left Caroline for good.

Mr. Crispin’s case was filed last Aug. 13, the day before the Child Victims Act, which extended New York’s statutes of limitations for childhood sex abuse, was set to expire. He seems to be the only person to have accused Father Wancura officially of abuse. (Searchable electronic police records in much of Suffolk County, which includes Setauket, date only to 1992.)

The complaint also makes the unsubstantiated assertion that Father Wancura’s killing in March 2018 was probably an act of retaliation. It reads: “The circumstances surrounding the attack on the reverend remain mysterious and unresolved, but there is reason to believe that the perpetrator’s primary intent was to torture the reverend, not to steal from him.”

Detective Lt. Kevin Beyrer of the Suffolk County Police, the lead investigator of the murder, said Mr. Crispin’s sexual abuse claims do not overlap with the case. “He was a very well-liked priest,” Detective Beyrer said. “Everything we’ve learned about him suggests that he was a well-respected member of the church and many Long Island communities.”

Though Father Wancura spoke with the police before he died in the hospital, Detective Beyrer declined to share what, if anything, the priest said about the attack.

Since its incorporation in 1730, Shelter Island has had only two homicides. The unsolved nature of the 2018 case, and its status as a violent murder, has left an unsettling residue.

“It’s been a loss of innocence,” said Ambrose Clancy, the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter, who has covered the case.

The crime could boil down to a burglary gone wrong. Detective Beyrer said that a gold Lucien Piccard Seashark watch, valued at $2,500, went missing from the Wancura house and has not turned up at local pawn shops.

A break-in across the street about two weeks after the attack supports this theory, though nothing was taken. “They threw everything out of the closet and onto the floor,” said Linda Brienza, who has owned the second home for 45 years. “Luckily, we weren’t there.” (Ms. Brienza’s daughter ended up buying Father Wancura’s house for $4 million several years ago.)

Almost four years later, more questions than answers remain.

“How could this happen on this quiet island where nothing ever happens?” asked Deborah Endemann, whose family has spent summers on Shelter Island since the 1940s.

Rebecca Shafer, a real estate agent and year-round resident, lives around the corner from Father Wancura’s former home. She said she was the only one in the neighborhood when the break-in occurred that killed the priest. “Instinctively, I’ve always felt that this wasn’t random,” she said. “I never felt that I needed to lock my car or my door. And I still don’t.”

At a news conference in 2018, Stuart K. Cameron, then acting chief of department for the Suffolk County Police, seemed to agree with Ms. Shafer, describing the crime as an intentional, rather than a random, act of violence.

Father McCarron continues to field questions from locals, saying, “While Shelter Island’s close-knit community can be a plus, it also means that if you get out of bed on the wrong side, or if someone has an affair, or if someone got drunk, everyone knows about it.”

James J. Read, the chief of police for Shelter Island, who is now in his 35th year with the department, said that the case was still very much active and open, and that he remains committed to seeing it through. “I’m not prepared to leave the police force until this case is solved.”

Amanda M. Fairbanks is a journalist based in Sag Harbor, N.Y. Her first book, “The Lost Boys of Montauk: The True Story of the Wind Blown, Four Men Who Vanished at Sea, and the Survivors They Left Behind,” was published last May.