Allegations Were Not First against Priest

By Yonat Shimron
News and Observer [Raleigh, NC]
April 19, 2002

Bishop F. Joseph Gossman knew at least three things about the Rev. James J. Behan. He knew the priest was loved in the parishes he served. He knew that Behan was charged with, and acquitted of, soliciting homosexual sex in 1981 with an adult in Raleigh's Nash Square and that he received eight years of extensive therapy. And on Tuesday evening, Gossman received a third bit of information that would cause him to revisit his zero-tolerance policy toward sexual abusers.

That evening a Florida man called the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh to say he had been sexually abused by Behan 25 years ago when he was a boy living in Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, Gossman removed Behan from his duties as pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Wilmington. As the highest authority over the Raleigh diocese, the decision was his to make, and his alone. Behan is the second priest Gossman has removed in two weeks; another was removed by Bishop William Curlin of the Charlotte diocese.

The three North Carolina priests are among the first casualties in a growing regional and national crisis roiling the Catholic church. The U.S. church does not have a uniform policy for handling cases of sexual abuse; each bishop is free to craft his own policy.

The nation's cardinals are being called to the Vatican next week, in part to determine whether a universal policy is needed.

Gossman, who described the recent disclosures of abuse as "a terrible cloud" and "an awful horror," said he was committed to removing any priest who has abused a minor.

"If we get a phone call that tells us something abusive took place, we have an obligation, because of the climate in this country, to determine if it is true or untrue."

On Thursday, Gossman also confirmed that at least one other priest in the diocese is being investigated for allegations that he abused a child. Decades-old allegations against two additional priests have come in this past month. One of those priests is dead; the other in a nursing home.

Behan, 58, could not be reached for comment. As a priest in the order of Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Behan may return to the order, based in Wilmington, Del. A call to the order's headquarters was not returned.

Last week, Gossman dismissed the Rev. Francis Perry after it was discovered that he lied about his past on an application. Perry, who led two small churches in Pender and Duplin counties, had been charged with taking indecent liberties with a minor -- a charge that was dropped when the victim refused to testify, according to the diocese. And in the Charlotte diocese, the Rev. Jim O'Neil, of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Greensboro, was removed from his position after allegations arose that he abused a child in another state. At least two other priests in the Charlotte diocese are being investigated but are not working in parishes.

The diocese of Raleigh governs churches in 54 Eastern North Carolina counties from Chatham to Dare. The diocese of Charlotte controls the 46 counties in the west.

James Coriden, a professor of church law at Washington Theological Union, said the church is now recognizing that a multiple set of policies for handling allegations of abuse is inadequate.

"Anything is better than the present situation," Coriden said. "They should have agreed-upon procedures."

Over the past few years the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued recommendations for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse, but those do not have the force of law, Coriden said. David Early, a spokesman for the conference, said a thick binder full of resource materials on pedophilia and child abuse was given to every bishop in the country in 1994, 1995 and 1996. The binders also included model policies for dealing with such cases.

The U.S. Conference recommends that bishops respond promptly to all allegations of abuse, remove priests from ministerial duties, report accusations to civil authorities and reach out to victims and their families.

Gossman did not share any details about the latest accusation involving Behan except to say that a call came in Tuesday afternoon alleging the abuse. Gossman responded by sending two representatives to Wilmington to meet with Behan the next day. When they returned, Gossman determined that the allegations were credible and by Wednesday evening moved to remove the priest. Gossman serves at the pleasure of Pope John Paul II and is accountable only to Rome.

The diocese acknowledged that Behan was arrested and charged with soliciting crimes against nature in 1981, a year after he arrived in the diocese. Behan was found not guilty, according to court records. But he did undergo eight years of therapy after that arrest, said diocesan spokesman Frank Morock.

Behan's first assignment in North Carolina was at the University of North Carolina's Newman Center. From 1981 to 1992 he served as pastor of Holy Infant Catholic Church in Durham. He then served as associate pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church in New Bern before being named to Immaculate Conception in Wilmington in 1993.

Parishioners in Durham said they were shocked by the charges.

"He was a truly charismatic person and a very loving person," said Betty Hirschauer, 75, a parishioner at Holy Infant in Durham. "He was the first to go to the rescue of anyone who was ever in need, whether emotionally or financially."

Hirschauer said that when Behan left the church, parishioners hosted numerous going-away parties for him.

Joan Peak, another parishioner, said Behan was so popular that priests that followed him had a hard time winning people's loyalties. "He always stressed that the people are the church, and that the laity have rights and responsibilities," Peak said. "He got a lot of people involved."

Behan apparently had a big following in Wilmington, too. During his tenure at Immaculate Conception, the church rolls more than doubled from 552 families in 1997 to nearly 1,200 this year. The church expects to break ground on a new "faith formation" building and plans to expand its sanctuary.


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