Summit Sheriff Conducting Inquiry of Retired Catholic Cleric in Akron, Northfield Who Admits in Magazine Article That He Molested Eight Boys
By Stephanie Warsmith, Colette Jenkins, Katie Byard and Carl Chancellor
Akron Beacon Journal [Ohio]
March 29, 2002
A retired Roman Catholic priest who has confessed in Newsweek magazine to molesting eight young boys while also presenting himself as a model for reformed priests is being investigated by the Summit County Sheriff's Office.
Neil Conway, a priest who ministered at churches in Akron and Northfield, is the subject of "a current ongoing investigation," Capt. Larry Momchilov of the sheriff's office said yesterday. He declined to specify what the sheriff's office is investigating.
In a Newsweek article, Conway is portrayed almost as a poster child for repentant pedophile priests at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is in the midst of a national crisis involving allegations of covering up child sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
"I committed an abomination," he says in Newsweek's current issue. "I'm sitting here on the dunghill of my own shame and guilt."
Records from the Diocese of Cleveland show Conway took a leave of absence from the priesthood in 1986 and underwent counseling after a nun found a young boy in Conway's bed at St. John the Baptist parish in Akron, where he was serving as pastor.
Robert Tayek, diocesan spokesman, said yesterday that church officials are investigating whether any reports about Conway were made to police or other agencies.
The diocesan policy on child abuse by clerics, which was established in 1989, requires that all allegations or suspicions be reported to the county Department of Human Services or a police agency, as required by Ohio law. The policy also requires that the cleric be relieved of all pastoral duties or any duties that involve access to children.
In Newsweek, Conway was open and candid about luring young boys into his bed. He said he stopped the practice only after the nun's discovery. He said he has tracked down and apologized to his victims and said five have forgiven him while three have not.
One of the victims sued him in Summit County Common Pleas Court in March 2000, claiming Conway repeatedly molested him in 1984 while Conway was an associate pastor at St. Barnabas Church in Northfield Center. The suit was dropped later that year.
On Tuesday at his family farm in Cuyahoga Falls, Conway declined to talk to a Beacon Journal reporter and referred questions to Dr. Melvin Allerhand, his longtime therapist. Allerhand said Conway was not giving any interviews until after he had talked to ABC News.
Yesterday, Conway was not taking messages on his voice mail system.
William Doyle, Conway's attorney, did not return two phone messages left at his Cleveland office yesterday.
The Newsweek article portrays Conway as someone who had isolated himself on his 18-acre farm in Cuyahoga Valley National Park and has vowed not to be alone with teen-agers.
But reports from neighbors, police and public records paint a different picture of the 65-year-old Conway.
Neighbors complain that Conway hosts noisy festivals and had a dog-breeding business on his property. Police records show that he has had minor brushes with the law.
Conway had another career after leaving the church. In March 1988, he began working for the Cuyahoga County Child Support Enforcement Agency, where he had daily contact with families.
Supervisors with the agency said he worked mainly with fathers who owed child support, and would not have had direct contact with children.
Conway had a rocky eight-year tenure with the agency. According to personnel records, he was demoted when he couldn't handle his workload, and he received multiple complaints from colleagues for excessive belching and flatulence.
In 1996, he left the agency after being accused of forging signatures on affidavits.
As a retired priest, Conway receives a pension from the diocese.
He was born May 20, 1936, in Cleveland, and was raised in Shaker Heights. He was ordained after earning a theology degree at St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland.
After serving in Cuyahoga County parishes, he was assigned as associate pastor at St. Barnabas in Northfield Center in 1983. He left there in 1985 to take a position as pastor at St. John the Baptist in Akron.
In November 1986, after the nun found the boy in his bed, Conway took a leave of absence. He was placed on total and permanent disability in 1987, after a medical and psychological report stated that he could no longer perform his duties as a pastor, said Tayek, the diocese spokesman.
Conway has received treatment at St. Luke Institute, a private Catholic psychiatric hospital in Silver Spring, Md., which provides counseling for ministers, Tayek said.
Neighbors of the former priest said yesterday they have not been surprised by the revelations about his past. They knew he had been a priest.
"There are all kinds of rumors... I put two and two together," said Matt Moore, 20.
Neighbors said that last summer Conway continued a pattern of disrupting the neighborhood and hosted a noisy festival to raise money for Akron's Pride Center for the gay community. This event attracted about 200 people.
Conway told Newsweek he is gay, though he said this had nothing to do with molesting young boys.
Conway has been arrested three times by Cuyahoga Falls police. He was twice sentenced to jail -- once for disorderly conduct and once for receiving stolen property -- but each time the sentence was suspended.
In April 1997, he was arrested for seeking parts for a stolen cell phone at a Radio Shack store. He was found guilty of the charge of receiving stolen property and received a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended. He paid a fine and court costs.
Three months later, he was sentenced to another 30 days on the disorderly conduct charge for stealing bottles of oil paint from a Pat Catan's store. This sentence also was suspended and Conway paid a fine and court costs.
Then in 1998, Conway paid a fine and court costs after being arrested for allowing his horse to wander off his property.
Neighbors said yesterday Conway has had frequent visitors.
"He doesn't keep to himself," neighbor Karen Ludwick said. "He's always been an unusual character. It's like he's been more or less a thorn in our sides... I don't know what he (Conway) is doing" by bringing attention to himself and the neighborhood.
"It's like he's flaunting it. He's very slick in everything that he does."
Priests who know Conway describe him as a complicated man.
The Rev. Cordon Yarner, pastor of St. Hilary Church in Fairlawn, graduated with Conway from St.
Mary Seminary in 1963. Yarner said that although they never socialized, Conway inspired him to work in the area of social justice.
"Neil is a complex individual, and it's not all dark," Yarner said. "I found him to be a very sensitive individual who related well to people. He was always particularly insightful about human nature. Even in the midst of all of Neil's problems and illness, I still love the man. I hear the struggle he's going through and my prayers are with him.
"From what I can tell, he is struggling with his own sexuality and what he's done in the past.
Any person, priest or no priest, that carries the burden of that illness is carrying a terrible weight."
While Yarner has compassion for Conway, he is quick to say the church must take the responsibility of helping Conway's victims.
"The evil that has been done must be eradicated," he said. "Everybody must come to the line on this... I only wish our bishops would move quickly with a national policy."
Like Yarner, the Rev. William Karg, pastor of St. Sebastian Church in Akron, has been saying daily prayers for victims of abuse by clergy and their attackers. Conway's case hits him personally because the two were friends in seminary and throughout the early years of Conway's priesthood.
When he heard what had happened at St. John the Baptist, he didn't know what to think.
"The police never came in and there was no criminal investigation and he didn't reveal anything -- he left in quite a hurry," he said. "Now, there are no more secrets."
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