N.C. Priest on Leave While Diocese Investigates Claim

Associated Press State & Local Wire
April 24, 2002

A Roman Catholic priest in Wendell has been placed on administrative leave while the Diocese of Raleigh investigates a claim that he made a sexual advance to an 18-year-old man years ago in Ohio.

The Rev. Thomas Watkins, 61, was temporarily relieved of his duties as pastor of St. Eugene Church, the diocese announced Wednesday.

Bishop Joseph Gossman, head of the diocese, received a letter dated April 12 from an attorney for the man, who accused Watkins of inappropriate sexual behavior 20 years ago, when the man was a college seminary student and Watkins was a member of the Marianist religious order in Ohio.

Watkins denied the allegations.

"Until a thorough review of the incident takes place, I believe it is in the best interest of Rev. Watkins to be on administrative leave," Gossman said. The Rev. Dan Oschwald was named administrator of St. Eugene's in Watkins' absence.

The letter said Watkins had been a friend of his accuser's family and counseled him when he was in high school, the diocese said. He visited him several times while the man was a college seminary student in Wickliffe, Ohio, northeast of Cleveland, and made the sexual advance on what turned out to be his last visit, the letter said.

The five-member Bishop's Advisory Board of the diocese, which reviews allegations of sexual misconduct, described the allegation as "credible."

The board took into account three other alleged incidents involving Watkins and adults that occurred over the last 25 years. Diocese spokesman Frank Morock said he did not immediately know whether the diocese was aware of those allegations before it received the letter.

Watkins was ordained a priest of the Marianist order in 1963. He applied to become a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh in 1990 and his request was granted in 1996.

Watkins became assistant pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Raleigh in July 1991. He was associate pastor at St. Michael's Church in Cary from July 1992 to March 1995, when he became pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Lumberton. He served there three years before transferring to Wendell, about 20 miles east of Raleigh.

Gossman referred to the allegation against Watkins one week ago in a news conference in which he said the diocese was investigating three claims made since Easter. He said the other two date back more than 40 years. At the time, he did not name any of the priests involved.

The other two investigations are continuing, the diocese said Wednesday.

Watkins is the fourth Roman Catholic priest in North Carolina to be relieved of his duties this month as sexual abuse allegations have surfaced in the wake of an international scandal concerning sexual misconduct among the clergy.

A fifth priest, affiliated with the Diocese of Charlotte but working in Florida, was placed on administrative leave last week pending the outcome of a new investigation into a 1999 claim of sexual misconduct involving a minor.


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