Ex-Barksdale Chaplain Faces Sex Charges in Arizona

By John Andrew Prime and Diane Haag
Shreveport Times [Louisiana]
December 7, 2006

A major who served as a Catholic chaplain at Barksdale Air Force Base for just more than a year has been indicted in Arizona on charges that he sexually abused two boys there in the 1980s.

The Rev. Gary E. Underwood, a priest assigned to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., was arraigned Nov. 17 on eight counts of sexual conduct with a minor and child molestation.

The allegations involve two boys under the age of 15 for acts said to have occurred in 1983 and 1984 while Underwood served as a priest at St. Odilia's Catholic Church in Tucson, Pima County Deputy Attorney Kathleen Mayer said. Underwood served at St. Odilia's from 1982 to 1988, she said.

"(Maj.) Chaplain Underwood has been the senior Catholic chaplain for the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base since 2005," said Col. Daniel Charchian, the wing's commander.

Underwood, now free on bond, remains at the local base but in an office slot. He "is currently performing duties assisting the director of staff at the 2nd Bomb Wing until this issue is resolved," Charchian said.

Underwood was relieved of religious duties in early August after a visit by Auxiliary Bishop Richard B. Higgins of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, under which Underwood served. Higgins also briefed the Catholic Diocese of Shreveport of the allegations against Underwood.

"No allegations have been made stemming from Father Underwood's time here," said Bishop William B. Friend of the Shreveport Diocese, who stressed that Underwood never appeared on its clergy roster. "The clergy from within our diocese have been very responsive in stepping in to provide needed ministry to what has historically been a vibrant and active faith community on base."

The judge advocate's office is not involved in the civilian court proceedings but will monitor the criminal proceedings, base spokesmen said.

Underwood has a civilian legal counsel. "He's innocent and we look forward to litigating," his attorney, Dan Cooper, said. He would not say where the priest is living. And Underwood's exact age is unavailable, but he is now in his early 50s.

Prosecutors learned of the accusations from the diocese after church officials spoke to a relative of one of the alleged victims, Mayer said.

Officials with the Tucson diocese have declined to comment, referring all questions to the Pima County prosecutor's office. The diocese lists Underwood as being on leave and serving at Barksdale. But under diocese policy, he has been suspended from the priesthood.

The diocese in 2002 began compiling a list of 30 priests, two deacons and a nun with credible allegations of abuse against them. That's when the Tucson diocese reached a $14 million settlement with 10 men who said they were sexually abused by four local clergy members in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Three diocese priests have been imprisoned for sexual abuse. They include:

  • the Rev. Julian Sanz, a former pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Douglas, Ariz., who was sentenced in 2003 to five years for sexually abusing an 11-year-old altar boy during confession in 1982.

  • the Rev. Juan Guillen, a former associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Yuma, Ariz., who is serving 10 years on two counts of attempted child molestation for sexually abusing altar boys.

  • the Rev. Thomas Purcell, a member of the Society of Mary religious order who is serving 9 1/2 years for sexually abusing a South Tucson, Ariz., boy in the 1980s.

    The diocese filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004 as it faced a raft of lawsuits related to sexual abuse by priests. It became the first Catholic diocese in the country to emerge from Chapter 11 protection in 2005.

    The diocese created a fund of more than $20 million to compensate people molested by members of the clergy.


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