Years of Abuse Get Priest 6 Months

By Margaret McHugh
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
May 13, 2006

A married Roman Catholic priest who battered his wife, bullied his children and fondled a boy was sentenced yesterday to six months in jail.

After listening to his four children and wife describe the violent episodes they endured for years, the Rev. William Winston, 52, the former pastor of St. Virgil's Catholic Parish in Morris Township, faced them in the packed Morristown courtroom and gave a tearful apology.

"I have failed as a father, and as a husband," he said. "I wish I could say it to you on a daily basis for every day of the rest of our lives."

In February, Winston pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and child abuse, admitting that he assaulted his wife, Janet, twice in 2004. He knocked her to the ground and continued to kick and punch her. On Nov. 1, 2004, Winston inflicted a permanent injury to her jaw.

The admitted alcoholic acknowledged that while drunk, he fondled a boy, now 11, at least four times between February 1999 and February 2002.

Defense attorney Michael Ascher argued against jailing Winston, saying it would impede the strides he has made toward overcoming alcoholism and his psychiatric problems. He noted Winston has attended more than 300 counseling sessions since his November 2004 arrest.

Ascher said Winston couldn't cope with the responsibilities of leading an 1,800-family parish and being a father and husband.

"This dual role was too much for him," the defense attorney said. Ascher revealed that Winston has applied to the Vatican for laicization, the formal process of removal from priesthood.

The former Episcopal priest is among only 120 or so married Catholic priests in the United States. While the Catholic Church does not allow priests to marry, married priests from other religions who convert to Catholicism may stay married.

The 90-minute sentencing provided a window on the devastating impact of domestic violence.

Janet Winston had waited for this day, to finally get to tell the truth of what she had endured over 16 years. And she questioned the authenticity of his November 2004 apology in Family Court that followed his arrest.

"While he was polishing his halo at AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), he was busy maligning me. ... He was going around our parish telling people that I was a liar and that they couldn't believe half of what I had to say," she said. "And I can tell you before God Almighty, that I have not been lying about anything."

Afterward, Winston said to his wife, "I know that you are not making this up. You haven't created any of this. It's real. I did it. And I'm solely responsible for it."

The children also took their shots. One by one, in descending age order, they vented about how he hurt their lives, how he always put others before them.

"I do believe that he has neglected the inner circle most of all," 16-year-old Monica Winston said.

Janet Winston scoffed at him blaming alcohol for his problems, saying he abused her even when sober.

Ascher insisted the alcoholism was real, and likened Winston to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"As trite as it may sound, my client has suffered enormously, Ascher said. "He only wishes that his eyes had been open and he could have seen through his alcoholic haze."

While noting Winston developed a personality disorder from being abused himself as a child, Superior Court Judge N. Peter Conforti said that did not warrant leniency.

"He was a bully to his wife and children," Conforti said. The judge said Winston would likely spend only four months behind bars.

Ascher said he might appeal the incarceration. Conforti sentenced Winston to probation for five years and ordered him to do 300 hours of community service.

After the plea, Winston moved out of housing at Morristown's Assumption Church, where he had been a priest before becoming pastor of St. Virgil's in June 1999. He moved to a Parsippany apartment, had a job and continued to collect a stipend from the Paterson Diocese, authorities said.

Janet Winston took a swipe at the diocese, which will stop providing the family housing in two years.

"Did anyone call us to see how my children were doing or how we were faring after the newspaper stories came out? No. They neglected us."

In a written statement, the diocese said it has provided the family support and continues to do so.

"Rev. Winston is responsible for the sustenance of his family just as any other spouse would be in this situation. As he fulfills the sentencing requirements, resources will be available for Rev. Winston to continue to support his family," the statement said.

The older two children suggested that some day, they might be willing to have a relationship with their father, but they warned him not to push the issue.

"Find inner health, but please do not do that at the cost of our happiness, safety and peace of mind," 20-year-old Claire Winston said.

Margaret McHugh covers the Morris County Courthouse. She may be reached at or (973) 539-7119.


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