Predator and Victim Struggling to Heal;
Priest Seduced Boys, Now Repents

By David Briggs and James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
March 12, 2002


The Rev. Neil Conway had his seduction technique down to a system.

First, he would target a young boy, a loner who might feel comfortable with a "cool" priest he admired. Then, he might buy clothes or school supplies for the child.

As they became friends, he would invite the boy out to his family farm, where they would ride horses together, share a meal and stay the night.

In the darkness, Conway would slip into the child's room after he had fallen asleep and rub his hands all over the boy's body. The next morning, Conway says, he would resume their "breezy" friendship as if nothing wrong had happened the night before. In his mind, he would assure himself that he was actually helping the boy, forging a bond between an emotionally needy youth and a caring adult. "I would convince myself it was a wonderful, positive experience," Conway says.

And so would begin a troubling sexual journey that would last until the boy was old enough to assert his independence.

Then, Conway would move on to his next victim. All the while, he projected the public image of a socially active priest on the front lines of the civil rights movement and more than willing to spend hours at the bedsides of sick parishioners.

"It was two lives," Conway recalled recently. "Very rarely would the two ever meet."

Today, some 16 years after he was sent to a treatment center for abusive priests - after a nun discovered an altar boy in his bed at an Akron church - Conway says he shares the private hell he created for others.

"Who has ever hurt a person more than an adult who has hurt a kid sexually?" he says softly.

Now 65, living alone with a cat and a Dalmatian at his family's farm, and cut off from the church-sponsored treatment that he says he continues to need, Conway says he feels just as abandoned by his church as many of his victims do.

However, officials in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese said last week that the church has provided counseling for Conway in the past and remains willing to continue it in the future.

Surrounded by hundreds of acres of woodlands and meadows in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, he prays at day's end before a broken, weather-beaten statue of St. John the Baptist that he rescued from the trash at his last church assignment in Akron.

"To reach contrition, you have to reach through the guilt and the shame," Conway says. "You have to resolve to pray, 'God: That was an awful thing I did. How could I ever have done that?' " And in the time he has left, he says, he is trying his best to make amends.

Conway says that, by his own count, he sexually molested eight boys over the course of his 22-year career as an active priest in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. Two eventually sued him and the diocese after they reached adulthood.

Conway says he has tried to contact each of his victims to confess his sins and to apologize - acts of contrition he knows his victims never received from the church.

"It's the holy Roman Catholic Church," Conway says. "It can do no wrong."

Conway grew up in Shaker Heights, one of 10 brothers and two sisters in a wealthy family.

He had wanted to be a priest since he was 14 and says he didn't realize he was a homosexual until after he had entered the seminary.

There, ensnared in a church culture that he says favored athletic types who didn't question authority - and where sex was never discussed - Conway quickly learned to be secretive about his own thoughts.

But after several years in the priesthood, no longer able to ignore the urges within, he says, he started pursuing young boys at the parishes where he was assigned.

It was the perfect situation for a pedophile. Enjoying the unlimited access routinely granted to priests, he was surrounded by a ready stable of trusting young victims and part of a church hierarchy intent on keeping the ugly results a secret.

Conway's abuse of children started in 1969 at St. Henry Church in Cleveland and continued to St. Barnabas Church in Northfield and to St. John the Baptist Church in Akron, where his secret world exploded in 1985 with the discovery of a young boy in his bed.

Last year, the boy - now 28, married and living in Garfield Heights - sued Conway and the diocese in Summit County Common Pleas Court after the diocese declined to pay for what he thought was needed counseling.

Despite Conway's admission that he had molested the boy, the diocese denied in court papers that any abuse had occurred and declined to accept responsibility for the priest's actions.

Diocesan denial about clergy abuse is so great, Conway said, that all of its correspondence with him since 1985 has avoided mentioning his sexual problems, referring only to his problems with alcohol.

"Oh, it's such stupidity," Conway says of what he described as the diocese's reluctance to provide continuing counseling to him or his victim. "It's a betrayal of everything they stand for. It's absolute betrayal."

But the Rev. John Murphy, secretary and vicar for clergy and religious of the Cleveland Diocese, said last week that Conway's description is inaccurate. Murphy said the diocese has paid for counseling for both Conway and his victim.

Asked whether the church would continue to offer counseling to Conway today, Murphy said, "Sure."

The alleged victim settled his lawsuit out of court for what he described as a minimal sum, although the exact amount is protected by a confidentiality agreement. But as he continues to struggle with nightmares and other ailments, he and his wife remain angry with the church and unreceptive to Conway's words of repentance.

They both believe that Conway "will have one foot bound and put into the pit of hell," the alleged victim's wife said in a recent interview. "The Lord will have his day with him."

Conway "basically raped him for the rest of his life," she said of her husband.

The fallen priest knows only too well how despised he is by his victims.

"It shatters your world, but you shattered somebody else's world," he says.

But he also feels abandoned by his church.

In the wake of his banishment from the diocese, Conway spent six months at a sexual-abuse treatment center for priests in Maryland. Therapists there were able to break through his pattern of denial and help him to accept responsibility for the abuse.

They also convinced him that he wasn't evil but a sufferer instead from a psychological disease.

Conway remembers breaking down in tears of relief on being told he was "a good man with a bad, bad problem."

It's a problem that requires constant work, however. And despite church officials' statements to the contrary, Conway said he believes the Cleveland Diocese has been unwilling to provide him proper treatment - and has passed the buck as a result.

Conway has tried with considerable difficulty to resume a normal life. He eventually retired from the priesthood, returned to college and started a new career as a paralegal in Cuyahoga County government.

He has vowed to stay far away from children but acknowledges that "a guy like me ought to have counseling the rest of my life."

After being away from therapy for several years, Conway asked the church for help with more treatment in 1996. But after grudgingly providing only limited assistance, Conway said, the diocese suggested to his therapist that, in Conway's words, he "ought to be over it by now."

He turned to his family for help, instead, and says he is now on his own.

And he's not the only one questioning the wisdom of that situation.

As thinking over abusive priests has shifted - with a church that once forgave and transferred them now opting more often to cut them adrift instead - those who treat pedophiles urge a note of caution.

While turning a blind eye to pedophilia or hiding suspected offenders in new assignments is clearly wrong, the church does have a responsibility to keep a close eye on people like Conway, said the Rev. James Gill, former director of a treatment center for priests who now runs a Catholic institute on sexuality.

"A priest pathologically still inclined to molest will find a way to molest," he said.

But banishing offenders from the church and stranding them without the help they need is just passing the buck, said Dr. Frederick Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant on sex abuse to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

No matter how attractive the prospect, he said, dumping abusive priests "may solve the church's problem; it doesn't solve society's problem."

Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn acknowledged that the church has to walk a fine line.

Rather than abandoning troubled priests, he said, the Cleveland Diocese continues to give them care and, where appropriate, new assignments that don't involve unsupervised contact with children.

From his perspective, at least, Conway said the diocese came to view him as "a very expensive, costly pariah."

But he hopes a little personal honesty might help shrink the stigma. That is why he has agreed to speak so openly about his sins - in the hope that some light might come from the darkness.

"The only thing that can redeem such an awful mess is for it somehow to hit the light of day," Conway said. "Some good has got to come out of this."

Policy on use of names The Plain Dealer does not name alleged victims of sexual abuse unless they specifically authorize it. Unless otherwise noted, the names in these stories - either full names or first names only - are real and are used by permission.

How stories were compiled Starting in June, reporters reviewed thousands of pages of documents from more than two dozen lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Cleveland, plus police reports and prosecutor's files from cases that included criminal investigations. Over the past nine months, reporters interviewed 22 victims, their families and more than 50 lawyers, prosecutors, judges, police officers, priests, sex-abuse authorities and government and diocesan officials.

About this series Today: An admitted pedophile priest and a victim of child rape by a former Catholic clergyman tell their stories.

Yesterday: The Cleveland Diocese appears to have lagged behind dioceses elsewhere in ministering to alleged clergy-abuse victims.

Sunday: Facing potentially costly legal judgments, the Cleveland Diocese uses tough legal tactics to ward off sex-abuse lawsuits.


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