Area Priest Removed for Lying about Past

By Victoria Rouch
Morning Star (Wilmington, NC)
April 12, 2002

A Catholic priest who served parishes in Burgaw and Wallace was removed from duty for failing to disclose two sex-abuse allegations leveled against him before he joined the church.

Frank Morock of the Diocese of Raleigh said Thursday that the Rev. Francis A. Perry, 57, lied on a 1994 seminary application and on annual church questionnaires since then. Specifically, he answered no to questions asking if he had ever been accused of a crime, Mr. Morock said.

On March 13, Raleigh Bishop F. Joseph Gossman received a letter informing him of an incident involving Rev. Perry and a 4-year-old female relative 41 years ago, when Rev. Perry was a teen-ager. The letter also mentioned another incident 15 years ago when Rev. Perry, not then a Catholic or a priest, was charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor. The charge was dropped when the victim refused to testify.

That case involved a male teen that Rev. Perry met while working at a psychiatric institution, Mr. Morock said, adding that he was not certain if the teen was a patient. The incident allegedly occurred after Rev. Perry no longer worked at the institution, Mr. Morock said.

There have been no allegations of misconduct since Rev. Perry became a priest, Mr. Morock said.

"To tell you the truth, he was just as nice a man as I've ever met in my life," said Milton Swinson, a longtime church member and one of Rev. Perry's parishioners. "This is a total shock to me. If he's guilty, there's no way he should be in the priesthood, but it's hard to believe."

Rev. Perry became a Catholic in 1990 and was ordained a priest in June 1998. He admitted the first incident but maintains his innocence in the second, Mr. Morock said.

After receiving the letter, church officials investigated Rev. Perry, who had served since July 2000 as the parish priest for St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Burgaw and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Wallace.

The letter came from "a family member of Perry's, who, given what is going on in the country today, just thought the bishop should be aware that Rev. Perry had this in his background," Mr. Morock said.

Bishop Gossman, leader of the diocese, placed Rev. Perry on leave Tuesday after the Bishop's Advisory Board, which investigates ministerial misconduct, decided that lying on diocesan forms constituted a serious breach of trust.

The diocese said Rev. Perry lied when he answered no to a question on a diocesan document that all clergy must fill out: "Has a civil lawsuit, criminal complaint or employer complaint ever been filed against you for child abuse?"

Thursday, the diocese announced Rev. Perry's removal, and Bishop Gossman released a special statement on sexual abuse.

"It is heartrending that the ugly specter of child abuse among Catholic clergy has once again been called to our attention," he wrote. "As your bishop I join my voice with the bishops of the United States and say without reservation that I condemn any form of sexual abuse, most especially that of minors by priests."

He wrote that "I have not, nor will ever, under any circumstances, accept, tolerate or condone such aberrant behavior by any priest who serves in the Diocese of Raleigh."

Reflecting on diocesan scandals in Boston, New York and elsewhere, the bishop on Wednesday announced that Sunday will be a "day of prayer for the church in crisis."

Mr. Morock said it was "highly unlikely" that Rev. Perry would ever resume working as a priest. The church affords due process to those charged with misconduct, and Rev. Perry would get a chance to have his case heard, Mr. Morock said.

He said as part of that process, Rev. Perry will be required to undergo counseling.

The diocese now requires background checks of seminary applicants, but when Rev. Perry applied, such checks were not required. Mr. Morock said even if it had been, the background check would not have reflected the allegations because there was no conviction in either case.

On Thursday, parishioners of Transfiguration Catholic Church in Wallace were shocked to learn the reasons behind the sudden departure of the man they called Father Drew.

Mr. Swinson said he and others learned at a meeting of the Knights of Columbus fraternity on Tuesday that Rev. Perry had left on an emergency transfer, but they weren't told why.

"We came in and there was a new priest," he said.

The Rev. Douglas Smiley will serve as priest for the parishes. Rev. Smiley is assigned to Infant of Prague Catholic Church in Jacksonville.

Mr. Morock said the church will likely make counseling available to any parish members needing help.

Mr. Swinson said Rev. Perry held daily English and Spanish masses at Transfiguration as well as St. Joseph's Church, which is about 15 miles away in Burgaw. He said if both Spanish- and English-speaking faithful came to a service, the priest would perform a bilingual Mass.

Mr. Swinson's wife, Pat, said the removal confirms her worst fears about the silence surrounding Rev. Perry's sudden departure.

"We thought he was so wonderful and friendly," she said. "We were hoping this wasn't the problem."

But she said the news now makes sense of an enigmatic sermon Rev. Perry delivered on his last Sunday at the church.

"He said something about wanting forgiveness for past sins or something like that," she said. "We all thought it was really odd."

Another church member, Zara Ezzell, struggled with the bishop's decision to remove a priest on old, unproven allegations.

"The only thing I know is that he's a fine man," he said. "I think if it's that far back and if there's such a thing as a man changing, then he has changed."

But Mr. Morock said neither the age of the charges nor whether Rev. Perry has changed is relevant.

"He was dishonest. The initial application for priesthood specifically asked if there's ever been charges of child sex abuse or any sex abuse, and he said no," he said. "You don't begin a religious ministry with a lie."


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