Former Pastor to Be Defrocked

By Margaret Smith
Billerica Minuteman [Massachusetts]
May 4, 2006

The Archdiocese of Boston plans to remove a former St. Mary's Catholic Church pastor from the priesthood, after he pleaded guilty last week to child molestation charges in Charleston, S.C.

In a press release, the archdiocese said it would resume a so-called canonical process to strip ministry status from Rev. James Nyhan, 60, who served as St. Mary's pastor for about four years and who was suspended from ministry in 2002 in the midst of abuse allegations. He resigned as pastor of St. Mary's in 2004.

Under provisions of canonical law implemented in 2002, any priest who admits or who is found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor must be removed permanently from the priesthood, archdiocese officials explained in a press release.

No criminal charges are currently pending against Nyhan regarding molestation allegations in Massachusetts, according to Emily LaGrassa, spokesman for Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley.

At. St. Mary's, parishioners were sad about the ruling, but determined to move forward and help foster a climate of open communication, according to Jack Clancey, a member of the parish council and a long-time parishioner.

"You can't ignore an elephant in a room," said Clancey, who said Rev. Francis Sullivan, who was named pastor in 2004, mentioned Nyhan's guilty plea during a homily given during Sunday Mass.

"He encouraged all of us to speak openly about these kinds of matters and not to hide them, because secrecy is a poor way of dealing with anything," Clancey said.

Clancey said Sullivan plans a forum for parishioners, along with a healing prayer service that will not be open to the public. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who visited the parish two years ago, will be invited to meet with parishioners once again, Clancey said.

Clancey said many parishioners have struggled with revelations about Nyhan, who was by all accounts well-regarded during his tenure at St. Mary's. There are no known complaints about Nyhan's conduct during his time at St. Mary's, Clancey said. "There was no hint of any problem whatsoever. While he was at St. Mary's, he worked well with everybody."

In the wake of the crisis, St. Mary's and other parishes are working to provide more oversight for staff and volunteers who work with the public, especially children. The efforts include seminars and information release slips prospective staff and volunteers must sign, Clancey said.

On April 24, Nyhan admitted sexually abusing three boys at the Church of the Nativity parish in Charleston, S.C. in 1979 and 1980. He pleaded guilty to three counts of committing a lewd act on a minor.

Nyhan was sentenced to 10 years on each count, but a judge suspended the sentence and placed Nyhan on probation for five years.

Under plea conditions, Nyhan will be required to undergo counseling and cannot have any professional or social contact with children, other than members of his family. Nyhan will not have to register as a sex offender in either California, where he lives now, or South Carolina.

Nyhan surrendered to authorities in South Carolina in 2003.

He resigned from his post as pastor of St. Mary's in April 2004, while the archdiocese was investigating accusations of child molestation at another parish where Nyhan served during the 1970s.

However, Massachusetts' statute of limitations may limit the ability to pursue criminal charges against Nyhan.

A previous investigation into another allegation against Nyhan was closed because the accuser recanted, according to the archdiocese.

Under terms of the April 24 plea, Nyhan admitted guilt to three counts of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. The three counts included acts against a third victim from the Church of the Nativity parish, whose case was not scheduled to be argued as of last week.

Nyhan had come to Charleston in 1979 after he was granted a year's leave of absence from his duties in Massachusetts.

Since Nyhan's leave and subsequent resignation from St. Mary's, Sullivan served in his place as interim pastor. The archdiocese formally named Sullivan as church pastor shortly after Nyhan's 2004 resignation.

Reports from the Charleston [S.C.] Post and Courier contributed to this article.


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