Catholic Diocese Has Own History of Sex Abuse
Priest in Boone Removed after Contacts with Boys

By John Railey
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, NC)
April 14, 2002

Last month, Catholic priests across the area read their congregations a letter in which Bishop William Curlin declared "zero tolerance for child sex abuse."

"Furthermore, at no time have any of our diocesan funds ever gone to another diocese for payments related to pedophile cases," wrote Curlin, the bishop for the Charlotte Diocese of the Catholic church, which includes parishes in Winston-Salem and across western North Carolina. Curlin wrote about discovering a case of pedophilia that occurred more than 50 years ago in Asheville and described himself as "aggressive in bringing it to public attention."

He didn't mention that the diocese has made payments in the Asheville case and at least one other sexual-abuse case within its own borders.

According to records in Watauga County Superior Court, the diocese in 1996 paid $77,489 to Martin and Melissa Corts, who alleged that their priest at St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church in Boone had fondled their son Gabriel when he was in his early teens.

A second payment of an undisclosed amount came three years later after the family filed a lawsuit charging that the priest, the Rev. Damion Lynch, had also abused the boy's twin brother.

"We have used both diocesan funds and insurance proceeds to help meet the personal needs of victims," Joann Keane, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said last week in response to questions from the Journal. She said she was not able to provide a total of the money spent. Church officials say that Curlin's statement to the Catholic congregations was not a case of deliberate omission. Keane said that Curlin, who became bishop of the diocese in 1994, was "not mindful" of the $77,489 payment. Curlin himself emphasized that the second payment to the family came from insurance money.

Some Catholics say that this case, like cases against Catholic priests nationwide, leaves questions about the manner in which bishops respond to allegations of molestation within their domains. Curlin said that psychological testing after the allegations surfaced found no evidence of pedophilia in Lynch, and he reassigned him to Our Lady of Consolation Church in Charlotte.

But after the Cortses filed suit and Lynch requested a leave of absence, Curlin wrote him a letter telling him that he could not return to the priesthood. "That's it and he knows it," he said.

Kathleen Shamel, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church in Clemmons, said that Curlin should have mentioned that case in his statement read to congregations. "The thing is, they (the family) were paid and the priest wasn't prosecuted," said Shamel, who has been a Catholic for all of her 76 years. "I'm just highly offended that as Catholics, we're being told, 'Just wait, it'll blow over.'"

Lawrence Cunningham, a theology professor at Notre Dame University, said that bishops should be as open as possible about such cases to maintain their own credibility - and the credibility of the thousands of innocent priests who find themselves laboring under a cloud of public distrust. "I think in these cases now, the bishops have to be absolutely transparent in stating what the case is and giving the facts honestly," he said.

Lynch, who could not be reached for comment for this story, grew up in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Charlotte.

The Rev. Cecil Tice, now at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church here, knew Lynch from serving as his priest at St. Patrick's, according to court records.

Later, as the vocational director for the diocese, Tice counseled Lynch about his desire to enter the priesthood, those records say.

Over the next several years, Lynch graduated from Belmont Abbey College in Gaston County and went on to Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland. According to court records, Tice monitored his progress - including checking the results of routine psychological testing, as well as checking with the teachers and priests Lynch studied under.

Tice stated in an affidavit filed in the Corts suit that, "I had no reservations about recommending Damion Lynch to serve as a parish priest for the diocese...."

Tice declined to comment for this story.

Lynch was ordained in 1991 and assigned to St. Elizabeth's the next year. As a parish priest, he often visited with the Corts family, and their sons sometimes spent the night at Lynch's rectory. Curlin said that Lynch reported "an indiscretion" to him in 1995. Curlin said Lynch told him "that he had looked at Gabriel Corts with a flashlight while Gabriel was sleeping," according to an affidavit filed in the court case.

Curlin added in an interview that Lynch broke diocese rules by having the boy spend the night unaccompanied at the rectory.

Gabriel Corts said he was repeatedly fondled, but has trouble recalling more. "My brain still on some level blocks it out on a daily basis."

His twin, Seth Corts, also said he has hazy memories of being fondled. "I'm in therapy for it, and we're trying to get to a place where I can actually really bring that out and basically bring closure to it," he said.

Such vague memories of sexual abuse are not unusual, said Mark Jordan, a religion professor at Emory University who has studied sexual issues in the Catholic church. When the perpetrator is a priest "there's so many betrayals going on, it causes a profound shock to a psyche," said Jordan, who is Catholic.

According to court records, Curlin removed Lynch from St. Elizabeth's in November 1995 and placed him on administrative leave. During that time, Lynch underwent the psychological testing.

The Rev. Mauricio "Mo" West, second in command to Curlin in the diocese, met repeatedly with the family to try to resolve their problems with Lynch, according to court records. West knew Lynch from Belmont Abbey, where West had been the vice president for student affairs while Lynch was a student, the records say.

Pursuing healing for all

Rather than go to police, his parents "wanted to go the Catholic route: 'Let's get healing for all parties involved,'" Gabriel Corts said.

In 1996, court records say, the Corts family accepted the first payment from the diocese, and agreed to release it from further damage claims and not talk about the case. Martin Corts said that the money went for counseling for Gabriel Corts.

In 1997, Curlin assigned Lynch to be an assistant to Tice, who was then at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Charlotte. He was trying to give Lynch "a fresh start," Curlin said.

"The whole thing is not, 'He's a pedophile, let's move him to another parish,'" Curlin said. "(The psychologists) didn't determine there was any kind of a problem like pedophilia."

The next year, court records say, Lynch requested leave from the priesthood. About that same time, the Cortses filed their lawsuit, which also named Curlin as a defendant because of his position as Lynch's overseer. "What we first thought was just one incident, we then found out was a prolonged scenario that involved Seth as well," Martin Corts said.

Diocese officials say that Lynch is the only priest to be removed for sexual misconduct involving minors while Curlin has been in office.

Cunningham said that American Catholics need a national policy on abuse cases, one that would "act with justice and compassion for priests and not put people in harm's way."

The Rev. Canice Connors, the former head of the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which treats priests with sexual problems, said that some sex offenders can be effectively treated.

Connors, who once served at Our Lady of Mercy in Winston-Salem, said that the treatment includes behavior modification and medicine. Treatment is crucial, he said, and so is reporting sexual offenses to police.

The Charlotte diocese learned last week of two new allegations of abuse more than 25 years ago. Keane said that the diocese notified authorities in accordance with a "tightening" of its sexual misconduct policy.

"We are deeply saddened by these two allegations," Keane wrote in an e-mail. "Bishop Curlin has adamantly declared zero tolerance for child sexual abuse." She declined to give further details on the allegations.

The Corts lawsuit has long since been settled.

Martin Corts said he left St. Elizabeth's over the way the case was handled, but recently returned. His sons, who live in Charleston, S.C., have left the denomination in which they were raised.

Hopes disclosure helps others

Martin Corts said he's talking about his family's case in hopes that his disclosures might help others, and he has been heartened to see other victims come forward as well. For some time at least, it's likely that victims - not bishops - will bring most abuse cases to light, some Catholic scholars say.

Often, Jordan said, bishops see such abuse cases as a private personnel matter to be protected. "But really what they're doing is protecting this much older system of keeping secrets, especially about sexual misconduct by clergy," he said.

Gabriel Corts said he struggles to leave behind his anger at Lynch, while Seth Corts said he has "pretty much let that lie." "I've basically forgiven him (Lynch)," Seth Corts said. "That's what I had to do in order to continue to grow and be human. I just didn't want to be that little monster in a box anymore."

Curlin said he doesn't know what Lynch did to the twins. But it's certain that Lynch will not return to the priesthood in this diocese, he said.

"You can't put a person back who's been formally accused," Curlin said. "You don't risk it on a child."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.