Bishop Denies Sex Abuse Allegation
Catholic Leader to Go on Leave As Required by Diocesan Policy
By Art Jester and Jim Warren
Lexington Herald Leader (Kentucky)
May 23, 2002
Bishop J. Kendrick Williams, head of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, denied yesterday that he sexually molested an altar boy in 1981, when Williams was a parish priest in Louisville.
"I am stunned and saddened by this accusation," Williams said in a prepared statement. "Let me state this simply: The allegations are false. I do not remember the young man, and I have never been brutal to anyone in my life."
Williams' denial was in response to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Louis-ville by James W. Bennett, 33. Bennett alleged a single episode of abuse at the Church of Our Lady occurred when he was 12.
Williams said yesterday he is taking a leave from all pastoral ministry while the case is investigated, in accordance with diocesan policy.
The policy, which Williams played a key role in developing, requires that anyone in the diocese suspected of sexual abuse must be placed on leave until the matter is resolved.
The diocese also announced that the Rev. Robert Nieberding, vicar general and second in command in the diocese, will assume most or all of Williams' administrative duties while he is on leave.
Tom Shaughnessy, diocese director of communications, said Williams will not play his customary role in any public or sacramental occasions, such as officiating at Mass or administering the Eucharist.
However, Shaughnessy added that it was unclear yesterday whether Williams would have to relinquish all administrative duties. Shaughnessy said the matter was being studied by lawyers who are experts on church policy.
Support from archbishop
Meanwhile, Williams received support from a clerical counterpart, Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, head of the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Kelly said in a prepared statement that Williams "is a fine bishop" who "has served the church in Kentucky well."
"In every sphere, he has been a teacher of the faith and an effective witness to the gospel. I am saddened by the charges against him, but am very hopeful that a careful investigation will exonerate him."
It was the first time that Kelly has commented on any of the lawsuits that have been fielded against the Louisville archdiocese, alleging sexual abuse by a priest. Eighty-eight lawsuits have been filed against the diocese during the past month.
Bennett could not be reached yesterday for comment on Williams' response, and Bennett's lawyer, William McMurry of Louisville, did not return phone calls.
There is an apparent contradiction between Bennett's account of the alleged molestation and what is alleged in the lawsuit.
Bennett told The Associated Press that the alleged abuse happened once. The lawsuit, filed by McMurry, alleges: "During 1981, Williams engaged in a pattern and course of conduct of sexually abusing children under the age of 18."
The suit goes on to say that the Louisville archdiocese failed to report this alleged pattern to law enforcement authorities.
Support from Catholics
Around the Lexington area yesterday, many Catholics said they had heard only scant details about the case and were withholding comments while waiting for more information.
But those who did speak gave Williams unflinching support.
"I know Bishop Williams personally, and I very much believe in his innocence," said Ed Monahan, a member of Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church.
Monahan said he regretted that Williams was having to step away from his duties while the allegation was being investigated.
"He has led this diocese superbly, and I find it extraordinarily unfortunate that a man of his caliber is having to step aside, and that the diocese is being deprived even temporarily of his leadership," Monahan said.
Monahan, who works for the state Department of Public Advocacy, said the traditional legal presumption of innocence often gets pushed aside when church leaders are accused of sexual abuse. He pointed to the case of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernar-din of Chicago.
"He was similarly accused of sexual abuse, and it turned out that it was a false accusation, but the damage to his reputation was significant," Monahan said. "We live in an atmosphere today ... where raising an allegation about sexual abuse receives a cultural presumption of truth that it doesn't deserve."
Scottye Terhune of Mary Queen questioned the sudden explosion of accusations against priests around the country.
"With all these things just coming out of the woodwork all of a sudden, I have a hard time with that," she said. "It's getting to the point now, I think some of these people are doing it for money.
"I offer Bishop Williams my support and my prayers. I hope he fights this. Somebody has to stand up to this and stop it."
Kim Thornton perhaps summed up the feelings of many.
She drove into the parking lot at St. Luke Catholic Church in Nicholasville yesterday afternoon.
Asked about her views on the case, Thornton thought for several moments, then said, "I think we all need to pray for the entire country."
First bishop of diocese
Williams, 65, has been the only bishop of the Lexington diocese since it was created out of the Louisville and Covington dioceses in 1988. Before then, Williams served four years as auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Covington and 21 years as a priest and administrator in the Louisville archdiocese. He was associate pastor of the Church of Our Lady from 1978 to 1983.
As bishop of the Lexington diocese, Williams is the spiritual leader of 48,000 Catholics in 50 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
The allegation against Williams is the second in the diocese since the sex-abuse scandal exploded this year within the Catholic Church in the United States.
In April, Williams joined with Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Joliet (Ill.) diocese in suspending the Rev. Carroll Howlin, pastor of Good Shepherd Chapel in Whitley City (McCreary County), pending an investigation.
Howlin has been accused of sex abuse in incidents in Illinois and Kentucky in the 1970s, but there have been no formal charges.
So far, there has been little movement in Howlin's case, Imesch said yesterday.
Jeff Tomczak, the Will County (Ill.) state's attorney, is in charge of the investigation. He could not be reached for comment.
Keith Aeschliman, a Joliet lawyer who represents a man who has accused Howlin of sex abuse, said his client is scheduled to meet with the state's attorney next week.
Another man who also has accused Howlin of sex abuse has been interviewed by the state's attorney, Aeschliman said.
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