Bishop Suspends Priest Several Men Allege Sexual Abuse in Decatur, Birmingham in 1960s

By Greg Garrison
Birmingham News (Alabama)
May 10, 2002

Bishop David E. Foley, head of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, has suspended a priest who has been accused by several men of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers in the early 1960s.

The Rev. Charles V. Cross, a parish priest from 1960 to 1985 and now director of general services for the diocese, has been stripped of his right to officiate at Catholic services publicly, Foley said Thursday. Cross, 68, has also agreed to retire, effective June 1, Foley said.

Foley said he has sent a letter on the church's national sex abuse scandal to be read in churches Sunday. He also has opened a review of the diocese's clergy conduct policy and will have a series of six open meetings at Alabama churches.

Catholics who have come forward to say they were abused by priests need to be taken seri ously and others need a chance to air their feelings about the scandal, Foley said.

"It's devastating," he said. "We need to be healed. I want to hear whatever they want to tell me. I need to hear them."

The first accuser who said he was abused by Cross as a teenager made his allegation in 1993 and filed a lawsuit in 1995. That suit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired on the allegations.

Robert W. Wilford, who now lives in Arkansas, accused Cross of molesting him from 1960 to 1964.

Wilford, 57, said Cross molested him repeatedly when Cross was an assistant priest at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Birmingham and said the abuse continued after Cross became associate pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church in Decatur. Wilford said he was 14 when the abuse began and he had sexual relations with Cross for four years.

Allegations denied

Cross denied Wilford's allegations. "It's disgusting, hurtful, embarrassing," Cross said.

Foley said other accusers, who prefer not to go public, have contacted him and made allegations that Cross molested them at St. Ann in Decatur.

"I think they're credible," Foley said. "I think they're substantial."

Cross has been informed of all the specific allegations and has denied them, Foley said. The suspension of Cross' priestly duties was effective May 1, he said.

Foley, who became bishop in 1994, said he has worked with Cross for eight years and has never seen any improper behavior by him. But Cross had already been barred from serving as a parish priest by the time Foley became bishop.

Cross said the late Bishop Joseph Vath sent him in 1985 to take a course at the Servants of Paraclete, a sexual treatment center in New Mexico. A transient had accused Cross of sexually accosting him. Cross denied that allegation also.

When Wilford sued the diocese in Jefferson County in 1995, he asked for $2 million, Foley said. The diocese never agreed to a financial settlement after the case was dismissed, Foley said.

Wilford said he met with Cross on Sept. 24, 1993, to discuss the allegations in a visit supervised by the Rev. Paul Rohling, who was the diocese's vicar general at the time. "I was wanting to know why he did it to me and wanting to know if he did it to other people," Wilford said.

Foley said molestation accusations were made against two other Catholic Diocese of Birmingham priests, both now retired, under previous bishops. They were forced into retirement before he became bishop, Foley said. Those cases also apparently involved accusations of abuse of adolescent or teenage boys, Foley said. "It was felt to be serious enough to put them out of commission," he said.

Wilford, executive director of a community action agency in Jonesboro, Ark., said he was an alcoholic from 1963 to 1978 because of the abuse by Cross. Wilford said he underwent 10 months of outpatient counseling with a psychotherapist in 1994-95 as treatment for depression.

"My father was not very nurturing," Wilford said. "Male companionship was something I didn't have. He [Cross] got close to my family and just started taking me places. He convinced me it was OK. It just escalated from touching and hugging to where we actually had sex. He would always hear my confession after we had sex. It was like he held that power over me - the power of the confessional and the guilt."

Important worker

Foley said Cross has been an important worker for the diocese and did not pose a danger in his job, which mainly involves overseeing the facilities at the diocesan headquarters at St. Thomas Catholic Life Center in East Lake. Cross also has served as a spokesman for the diocese.

Foley said there was no way to know for sure if Cross abused the teenage boys. "If it did happen, it happened 40 years ago," Foley said.

But Foley said perceptions are important, and the scandal has prompted a new openness and new caution concerning abuse by priests. Foley has asked all priests in the diocese to read a letter from him at Sunday services in which he says, "We must eliminate from ministry any cleric endangering your people."

The letter encourages attendance at meetings at 6:30 p.m. May 25 at St. Paul's Cathedral in Birmingham, at 6 p.m. May 26 at Holy Spirit Church in Tuscaloosa, at 6 p.m. May 27 at Our Lady of the Shoals in Tuscumbia, at 7 p.m. May 28 at St. Peter the Apostle in Hoover, at 6:30 p.m. June 4 at Our Lady of the Lake in Pell City, and at 6:30 p.m. June 10 at Holy Spirit Church in Huntsville.

Foley emphasizes that the vast majority of the 47,000 U.S. priests are "good and dedicated," and deserve to be affirmed. Those who have committed heinous acts need to be exposed, he said.

"The media is doing us a favor, doing what we can't do for ourselves," Foley said. "The victims have overcome their fear of coming forward. We'll get through this. We'll survive and be stronger as a church."


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