That murdered ‘priest’ and accusations of abuse: But this wasn’t another Catholic case

Get Religion

February 7, 2022

By Terry Mattingly

I have, since the 1980s, heard my share of complaints from Catholic readers about news coverage of sexual abuse by clergy.

There are readers who get angry about this coverage, period. They want the topic to go away and see anti-Catholic bias in any coverage of the subject, even when the coverage is accurate and fair-minded.

However, other Catholic readers get mad when they see valid coverage that leaves the impression that sexual abuse is only an issue in the Church of Rome. Many of these readers (on the Catholic left or right) want to see accurate, informed coverage on this hellish topic, which would include some mention of the many, many cases that take place in secular settings (think public schools) and in other religious groups.

That’s the broader context for complaints that I heard about a recent New York Times story that ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

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

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

There were two problems with this tragic story — one obvious and one not so obvious.

The first problem was that readers didn’t find out, until quite a ways into this piece, that this was a story about an alleged abuser in the Episcopal Church. The word “priest” stood alone in the headline and in 300-plus words of text. It helps to read the lengthy overture:

“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?”

At that point, a crucial word — “Episcopal” — enters the picture:

“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.”

The second problem with this story? Hold that thought.

This Episcopal priest was certainly a colorful and somewhat mysterious character. He was the husband of a wealthy wife and he was described as “elegant and proper,” but also as “emotionally distant.”

The story offers, without comment, some interesting cultural details — noting that Wancura was the kind of cleric who snacked on “pâté, toast and cornichons” and had adopted a “faux British accent, despite his being a Long Islander.”

Eventually, the Times had to cover the accusations, by a former altar boy, of sexual abuse against this Episcopal priest. It appears that this priest was leading a double life.

This case reminded me, of course, the the infamous case of the late Bishop Paul Moore Jr., the famous liberal leader of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. See this GetReligion post for more background, centering on a stunning New Yorker feature by Honor Moore, one of bishop’s nine children: “About the bisexual-bishop story (updated).”

The accuser of Father Wancura — Lew H. Crispin III — is quoted as saying: “I’m sorry he’s dead. … I wanted to see him go to jail as an 80-year-old child molester.”

Then there is one final hook:

“The [Crispin] 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.””

There’s more to the story, obviously.

This brings me to my second and final point. In addition to getting the word “Episcopal” early in the story, it would have helped if the Times team had included a paragraph noting that this liberal Protestant denomination — which has married clergy, obviously — has its own history of sexual-abuse crimes, with children and adults among the victims.

There was no need to have left readers in the dark — for 300-plus words. At the same time, it would have helped to have included some additional context for these crimes.