Priest Removed after Sex Abuse

By Sallie Owen and Kristen Campbell
Mobile Register
March 17, 2003

Priest removed after sex abuse Fourth report of abuse showed Sherlock was not being truthful, says Lipscomb


Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb on Sunday told members of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Montgomery that their former pastor, the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock, has left the priesthood because he had a history of child sex abuse involving at least three victims. Sherlock resigned effective Feb. 28, Lipscomb said. He said he decided to speak to the parish Sunday after he learned last week of a fourth allegation of abuse by Sherlock, who spent all but the last few years of his priesthood in the Mobile area. "Because of three long-past incidents of sexual abuse of minors," Lipscomb said, "it was no longer possible for Father Sherlock to stay as pastor or even continue in active priestly ministry." The Catholic Church has been embroiled in a scandal over priests who sexually abused children and in some cases were shuttled by bishops from parish to parish. Last April, Pope John Paul II denounced the abuse as an "appalling sin" and a crime. Sherlock had served the downtown Montgomery parish since the summer of 1997. Lipscomb said he had known of three victims, which Sherlock had admitted, for some time. "Last week, it came to my attention, as a fourth and credible allegation surfaced, that Father Sherlock had not been truthful in the full disclosure of his abusive activity," he said. "Though this last case was not current, it could not be characterized as long past." Although the archbishop did not specify, Register sources indicated the known victims are male. Parishioners told St. Peter's parishioners were told of the adults-only meeting at services Saturday and Sunday. More than 150 people crowded into a large meeting room Sunday afternoon for the announcement. Lipscomb, who returned Saturday from a trip to Rome, spoke to parishioners for about five minutes, then answered questions for about 20 minutes. After speaking with a few people individually, he departed for an appointment in Dothan. During Sunday's question-and-answer period, Lipscomb said that news about Sherlock was bound to come out, whether or not he publicly announced it. Lipscomb said he had heard rumors that the Mobile Register planned an "expose" on Sherlock for the Monday paper. News that their former priest was an admitted pedophile and that Lipscomb had knowingly sent them a pastor with a history of abuse prompted powerful reactions from some parishioners. The reactions ranged from fury at Lipscomb to staunch loyalty to the priest they knew and loved. Vicky Downey said she felt Lipscomb was protecting a priest at the expense of children, and said she would begin writing letters to communicate her anger to the church hierarchy. She urged other Catholics to do the same and consider withholding donations from the church to get the leadership's attention. As for Sherlock, she said, "Part of me sees him as a monster, an intellectual monster, who stood in our pulpit and gave beautiful homilies, and behind the scenes he was battling his demons." Some defend work At the other extreme were those who defended Sherlock's work at St. Peter's, a cream-colored stucco building with a red tile roof that recently underwent large-scale sanctuary renovations. "He was a wonderful priest here. He served this congregation well," said one woman who has been a parishioner at St. Peter's since 1950. "We shouldn't be airing people's dirty laundry here." The reaction of Betsy Hosp, who carried her young daughter in her arms, fell somewhere in the middle. Hosp said she felt grief, as though someone had died. "He was our parish priest. We loved him," she said. "He's sick. My heart goes out to his victims." Lipscomb said Montgomery parishioners had written numerous letters expressing concern for Sherlock's health and asking how they could write to him. Lipscomb told parishioners that he did not know how they could contact Sherlock. The Register also was unable to contact Sherlock. Sherlock grew up in Montgomery and was ordained to the priesthood in 1966. With the exception of time spent in graduate school at Marquette University in Wisconsin, Sherlock spent the first 30 years of his ministry in various positions in the Mobile area. He was assigned to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Chickasaw, and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and St. Pius X Catholic Church, both in Mobile. Sherlock also taught at McGill-Toolen High School. Meg Moreland of Mobile said she was devastated by the news. "I hurt so badly for him. I hurt for the victims too," Moreland said. "I just hate it for him." Moreland said she met Sherlock in 1975, at the start of her freshman year at McGill-Toolen High School. Sherlock, then chairman of the religion department there, "made religion fun," Moreland said. "He just befriended me," she said. "He was the person who helped me be OK in high school." Moreland said she never sensed "any perversion" or anything sexual about his interactions with her. "He was just there for the students." Now a mother of three, Moreland said she thinks church officials need to be more open and honest in all their dealings, including confronting the sexual abuse scandal that's been plaguing the church in recent years. "The secrecy in the Catholic Church pushes so many people away," she said. "The fraternity mentality is what drives me nuts." The Rev. Matthew J. O'Connor, pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church on South Sage Avenue in Mobile, said he had not been informed about the allegations against Sherlock. "I'm sorry to hear it," O'Connor said when a reporter told him of the allegations. "That's terrible." O'Connor, who has served the parish in the Midtown area for three years, said the news would be a major shock to the congregation. "I don't know what's going to happen. I'm sure people will be very disappointed to hear at St. Pius," O'Connor said. "I'm sure they'll be very concerned, too." O'Connor said he planned to wait for Lipscomb's guidance as to whether he should set up a meeting for parishioners here, such as occurred Sunday in Montgomery. Safeguards in place Safeguards to protect children are in place at St. Pius X Catholic Church, O'Connor said. "We follow the guidelines that have been set in place by the National Council of Catholic Bishops and also by the archbishop," O'Connor said. "We're very careful. We try to follow those to the letter of the law. ... We're very conscious of the responsibility we have, particularly in the kind of climate that we have right now in the church. We know that people are very concerned about their children. We do everything we can." Legal repercussions from the announcement were uncertain Sunday. Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Mobile native, has recused himself from any cases that might arise because he is a member at St. Peter's and because Sherlock was one of his high school teachers. "I urge any victim of this kind of despicable criminal activity to contact your local district attorney or police or sheriff's department immediately," Pryor said in a statement released to the media Sunday. "The Investigations Division and Violent Crimes Division of my office, however, will promptly respond to any requests for assistance from any law enforcement agency." Pryor also said he would redouble efforts to amend the child abuse reporting law to include clergy. Bills have been introduced in the Legislature, he said. DA 'disappointed' Mobile County District Attorney John M. Tyson Jr. said he learned of the allegations against Sherlock after a friend at the Montgomery church called him Sunday afternoon. "People come to us with allegations about pedophilia all the time," Tyson said. "This is the first instance that I have heard it may have been in the Catholic Church in our diocese. I had not heard that before today." Until recently, Tyson said he would have been completely surprised by the allegations. But, he said, "Given the trouble that has occurred prominently throughout the country, I can't say that I'm surprised. But like everyone else, I'm disappointed and I'm frightened and I'm distressed that our children may have been exposed to this guy." Tyson said he expects to try to speak with Lipscomb about the matter this week. "We just have to follow the leads that we are learning today," Tyson said. "I would encourage anyone who may know of an incident or who has been a victim of Father Sherlock to please step forward to the authorities as soon as possible. We will make sure that it is properly considered by law enforcement and prosecution efforts." The statute of limitations that may affect any possible victims varies, depending upon when the abuse occurred, Tyson said. The Code of Alabama changed nearly 20 years ago, removing any limitation of time within which prosecution must begin for certain crimes, including sex crimes involving victims younger than 16. In other words, no statute of limitations exists for any such crime that occurred after Jan. 7, 1985. Tyson said he thought the statute of limitations had probably expired for any crimes committed before that date. Last day before reforms Sherlock's resignation took effect on the last day before reforms kicked in that would change the way allegations of abuse by priests are handled. Lipscomb said he had urged Sherlock to do it sooner. The norms for policies dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors were approved in June 2002, then revised in November 2002, and became law for all the dioceses in the United States on March 1. The archbishop said Sherlock had received psychiatric treatment for three years, and described him as "deeply affected by remorse and shame." Lipscomb said psychiatric tests had previously indicated that Sherlock was OK. "Those determinations were clear - this man is not a pedophile, this man is not a risk," Lipscomb said. Addressing St. Peter's parishioners Sunday, Lipscomb said, "While I was repeatedly assured by Father Sherlock that his connection with young people at St. Peter's was in no way connected with past problems, it was also represented to me last week that this might not have been the case." In response to questions, Lipscomb said he did not know of any other abusive priests in the archdiocese. As calls for reform welled up around the country, Lipscomb stood against a zero-tolerance approach. On Sunday, Lipscomb reiterated his feeling that the church's new policy was too strict and unforgiving. The guidelines stipulate that priests be removed from public ministry after "even one act of sexual abuse of a minor." When the new policy was considered in June 2002, Lipscomb voted for it but said he found it too rigid in barring from ministry any priest who had ever sexually abused a minor. "Recidivism is not necessarily a given," Lipscomb told the Register in June. "I would like to see a bishop, in concert with a review board, able to judge those cases where recidivism has not occurred - each on its merits." In December, after Boston's Cardinal Bernard Francis Law resigned, Lipscomb said Law was guilty of no personal wrongdoings and was a victim of "the media campaign against him." Lipscomb said Law had followed a long-standing church practice of relying on psychologists and psychiatrists, who assured the Catholic hierarchy that priests exhibiting such behavior could be treated and returned to the ministry. By contrast, Sherlock was quoted as saying Law made the right decision. "I'm glad he (Law) resigned... He should have done it months ago," Sherlock told the Montgomery Advertiser. "It's sad on one hand because he (Law) has worked very hard all of his life, but I think that the Archdiocese of Boston served him poorly and the church poorly in the way it handled many of these cases," Sherlock said. "He's a man who worked hard, and he trusted a lot of people under him that he shouldn't have trusted."


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