Gay Pastor's History of Abuse Shocks a South Dakota City

By John W. Fountain
The New York Times
May 10, 2002

Though it was never meant to be a secret, the Metropolitan Community Church of the Black Hills, which serves a gay and lesbian congregation, existed in relative obscurity in this community of 60,000.

That is, until last week, when news broke that the church's pastor, the Rev. James A. Forsythe, was a former Roman Catholic priest who 13 years ago pleaded guilty to molesting a 15-year-old boy while an associate pastor of a parish in Kansas.

Mr. Forsythe's past was disclosed by The Kansas City Star, which reported that he had not registered as a sex offender with the police here, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Capt. Christopher Grant of the Rapid City police said that Mr. Forsythe would not be charged and that the authorities believed his failure to register since his move here from Colorado in January 2000 had been an oversight. He registered this week.

But word that the 47-year-old Mr. Forsythe was a convicted child molester, and that national officials of his Protestant denomination as well as some members of the local congregation had been aware of his past, stunned many here.

To some extent, the very presence of a church serving gays and lesbians was a surprise to quite a few in this small conservative city. And while the past days have brought no visible sign of intolerance, some worry that the Forsythe episode could prove a springboard for it.

Cara Riker, who is 29, a lesbian and a divorced mother of three children, has lived in Rapid City for 12 years and, she said, has been able to do so for the most part worry-free.

But Ms. Riker, who is not a member of Mr. Forsythe's church, said of the heightened public exposure of gays and lesbians: "I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing. It's the negativity and the backlash of being gay that's not going to be a good thing. I'm just afraid of the negativity for my children. There's always those negative people, who don't have open minds."

Mr. Forsythe's church is a member of the Metropolitan Community Churches, created in 1968 by a gay minister, the Rev. Troy D. Perry, as a denomination for gay and lesbian worshipers. The denomination, which is based in California, claims 46,000 followers among 300 congregations in 22 countries.

The Rapid City church was founded in 1996 and, the denomination's national officials say, has about two dozen members, none of them children. It is housed in a two-story downtown building, in a sunny second-floor office with hardwood floors, a podium and an altar table. Pamphlets about the AIDS virus were visible today through a window at the front door.

Contacted this week, both Mr. Forsythe and Charles White, an official of the local church, declined to comment. Last week Mr. Forsythe told The Kansas City Star: "I love the ministry, and I loved the priesthood. I thought I made a good priest. But I'm not called to be celibate. And for me to be in that environment was not healthy." He also said that while he had told officials of the local church about his past, he had not told the entire congregation.

His lawyer, Timothy J. Rensch, said Mr. Forsythe had been unaware until recently of the state requirement that he register with the local authorities as a sex offender. The disclosure of his past has caused Mr. Forsythe shame and worry, Mr. Rensch said.

"I know that he's embarrassed," the lawyer added. "I think somebody in his position would naturally be worried about what might happen. He was labeled pedophile, failing to register. One always worries about the depth of backlash you can get by virtue of that label."

The sexual abuse that Mr. Forsythe admitted to a judge in December 1989 occurred when he was a priest at Holy Cross Church in Overland Park, Kan., outside Kansas City. He pleaded guilty to one count of molestation and, said Tom Bath, the prosecutor who handled the case, spent 120 days in prison.

Later, in the early 1990's, Mr. Forsythe first became active at a Metropolitan Community Church, in Denver, and informed church officials there of his past, said Jim Birkitt, national spokesman for the denomination.

Mr. Birkitt said the Metropolitan Community Churches had a policy of "zero tolerance" for sexual abuse of children. But in addition to that early candor with church officials, Mr. Birkitt pointed out that Mr. Forsythe had served his time, undergone seven months of residential treatment after being released from prison and committed no offenses since.

"We've got 34 years of history of being a church of a second chance," Mr. Birkitt said, "and that's what it has been for Reverend Forsythe."

The Rev. Charles McGlinn, vicar general of the Kansas City Archdiocese, was another associate pastor at the Overland Park church when Mr. Forsythe was charged with sexual abuse. He remembers him as "an enjoyable person with a very outgoing personality" and as "a very kind and compassionate person."

"I have not seen Jamie since he left here, and I really don't know if he has rehabilitated or not," Father McGlinn said. "If he was a priest, we would not employ him in any pastoral capacity in the archdiocese. That's just our policy."


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