Church Officials Deny Cover-Up

By Martin B. Cassidy
Greenwich Times
December 22, 2007,0,2023933.story?coll=green-news-local-headlines

After being blasted by a federal judge earlier this week, officials of Christ Church Greenwich have sent parishioners a letter blaming the advice of their lawyer for missteps in handling the discovery of child pornography on a laptop computer owned by longtime music director Robert Tate and said the church was not trying to cover up.

In the letter dated Tuesday, Senior Warden Ted Pryor and Junior Warden Timothy Carpenter write the church acted on the counsel of their then-attorney Philip Russell, 48, and that they felt the need to respond to "issues" raised during Russell's sentencing for illegally destroying the computer to prevent law enforcement from finding the pornography. During the sentencing on Monday in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, Judge Alan H. Nevas scorned Russell and the church for their decision not to report the child pornography to law enforcement. Nevas said Russell's destruction of the pornography might have prevented the incident from coming to light.

"They were absolutely getting the answer they wanted," Nevas said of the church leaders. "They wanted it to go away."

In the letter, Pryor and Carpenter write that the church wasn't motivated to conceal the incident when it consulted with Russell in October 2006 on how to handle the illicit material.

"Until he was replaced, the church relied upon and followed Mr. Russell's legal advice," the letter wrote. "There was never a desire or intention to participate in a 'cover-up.' "

Nevas sentenced Russell to 12 months probation, including six months of home confinement for one count of misprision of a felony for destroying the computer to thwart federal investigators should they seek it out as evidence.

Church officials may have been misled by Russell's advice, Nevas said Monday, but their decision to accept Russell's advice that Tate's computer did not have to be preserved as evidence was questionable.

Among the questions that Nevas said should have been asked by church leaders was whether they should report the pornography to law enforcement.

"There were questions that should have been asked that obviously weren't," Nevas said Monday of the church officials.

Russell's attorney Roy Ward issued a statement after reading the letter stating the church might be unfairly characterizing its relationship with Russell.

"Much of what was said to Attorney Russell by Mr. Walker and Mr. Pryor is protected by the attorney-client privilege," Roy Ward said of the letter. "All I can say is that Attorney Russell will not address with any specificity the inaccuracies which may be in that carefully worded statement."

The letter also maintains the church knew nothing of allegations of sexual abuse by Tate in October 2006, when they were consulting Russell on how to handle the illicit material.

On Monday, prosecutors said they had evidence that Tate had sexual contact with child prostitutes in his apartment at Christ Church Greenwich, and traveled to Thailand and the Philippines to have sex with young boys.

"At that time, the leadership of the Church was not aware of any allegations of sexual contact with children anywhere by Mr. Tate," the church letter states. Nevas did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Russell was hired by the church on Oct. 9, 2006, after an employee discovered child pornography on a computer belonging to Tate, according to prosecutors.

In a meeting that day, according to prosecutors, Tate said he had downloaded the pictures. Church officials fired Tate, and Russell gave Tate the name of a defense attorney, which showed Russell was conscious of a potential criminal case against Tate, prosecutors argued.

Russell then took the computer back to his office, where he destroyed it, prosecutors said.

Eugene Riccio, an attorney representing the church, said yesterday that Christ Church officials made the best decision they could based on Russell's advice and that Nevas might have been too harsh on the church leaders.

Riccio said that church leaders did ask Russell if they were required to turn over the pornography to law enforcement, but declined to elaborate on meetings between Russell and church officials at that time. "I understand the anger of Judge Nevas regarding this situation, but I also think that if you examine all the facts related to those unfortunate incidents you would see the leadership of Christ Church Greenwich in a more favorable light," Riccio said.

Riccio said federal investigators told church officials about alleged sex abuse allegations about Tate in the fall of 2006, well after Russell left and the investigation began.

In late winter or early spring 2007, the church learned from federal investigators of allegations that Tate might have committed acts of sexual abuse with choir members, Riccio said, but federal investigators probed the claims and have so far not charged Tate.

"No law enforcement action has been forthcoming," Riccio said.

Since Tate pleaded guilty in January to one count of possession of child pornography, he has been receiving treatment for deviant sexual behavior in a Minnesota psychiatric facility.

Robert Casale, another lawyer who defended Russell in the case, said the letter was unusual in that it castigates Russell's legal maneuver rather than addressing the newly aired allegations of sexual abuses by Tate.

"I guess they are still sort of supportive of Mr. Tate," Casale said. "They submitted another letter to the court a little earlier with the we're-going-to-pray-for-everybody approach without really saying much."

Francis L. O'Reilly, the Fairfield-based criminal lawyer, for Tate, acknowledged yesterday that Tate did engage in sexual conduct with minors, and has been addressing psychological problems that caused that sexual abuse.

During his treatment at Minneapolis-based Alpha Human Services, counselors have polygraphed Tate about his sexual conduct with minors, testing which has indicated that he never victimized children who belonging to the church, O'Reilly said.

"As part of the process of disclosure, Mr. Tate has disclosed any and all instances of actual sexual conduct in which he has engaged with minors," O'Reilly said. "It is important to understand there were very few instances of any improper sexual conduct by Mr. Tate. Any such instances were many years ago, and there was never any disclosure of him engaging in such conduct with members of the Christ Church community."

Tate is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 31.

Several Christ Church Greenwich parishioners declined comment yesterday.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.