Losing Priest Pains Wendell Church

By Yonat Shimron
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC)
June 9, 2002

Wendell — There were few outward signs of trouble at St. Eugene Catholic Church last Sunday. A lawn sign perched outside the sanctuary reminded parishioners of Vacation Bible School. And a red, thermometerlike chart in the lobby showed that the building fund was on track, with $ 362,133 raised.

But as the regular mix of parishioners, young and old, casual and formally dressed took their seats, the priest celebrating Mass was not the church pastor, and the parishioners in the pews were still perplexed by events that have thrust their church into an ever-widening sex-abuse scandal.

In April, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh placed the Rev. Thomas Watkins on temporary administrative leave after receiving allegations that he proposed sex to a seminary student 26 years ago. Watkins has denied the allegation. Last week, he was granted an indefinite medical leave of absence, meaning he is unlikely to return.

The 61-year-old priest is the third in the diocese to be removed since the child-sex-abuse scandal broke. But unlike the others, Watkins is not accused of having molested children. He is alleged to have taken advantage of his position as a priest to ask for sexual favors, which puts his behavior in a gray area where many dioceses are concerned.

On Thursday, the nation's 300 active bishops will meet in Dallas to consider a binding national policy toward priests who sexually abuse children. But they will not address a growing number of less clear-cut cases — such as Watkins' — that are coming to light across the nation and leaving bishops in a quandary.

Some sexual misconduct, such as the abuse of children, is criminal. Other sexual misconduct violates professional standards shared by doctors, lawyers, therapists and clergy. And then there's consensual sex between a priest and an adult not under his care, a violation of church vows of chastity but not of any civil law.

Recently, Pope John Paul II agreed to speed up the retirement of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who confessed to paying a man $ 450,000 in return for silence about their homosexual relationship more than two decades ago. Several other high-ranking clergymen have been accused of similar relationships with adults. Cases such as these suggest sexual misconduct can be wide-ranging and difficult to catalog.

And with so many cases emerging, some Catholics are concerned that innocent priests may eventually be falsely accused.

"People who have been abused have been more willing to talk," said Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, the editor of the Catholic magazine Commonweal. "Lawyers are looking for more work. Reporters are looking for more stories. It's become overwhelming and it's difficult to sort out."


Long-buried allegation

Thomas Watkins' problems began in early April when a letter from a lawyer representing a 45-year-old Florida man landed on the bishop's desk.

The letter detailed a series of incidents 26 years ago between Richard Winterich, then an 18-year-old seminary student, and Watkins, Winterich's priest, confessor and confidant from his days in high school.

Winterich, who contacted reporters to tell his story, alleges that in 1976, when he was a first-year student at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio, Watkins came over to help him with his studies. He said on at least two occasions, Watkins came to his dorm room with a bottle of wine, which they drank. The second time, Watkins said he loved him and asked whether he could kiss him.

"Surely Jesus must have kissed his disciples," Winterich says Watkins told him. "Would it be OK if I kissed you?"

Winterich said in his letter that he expected a kiss on the cheek, but Watkins kissed him on the lips. He said Watkins then told him: "You know, I think it would be OK if we play with each other."

At that point, Winterich said, he got up, threw a book at Watkins and ordered him to "get out."

The diocese's version of the event, while not as detailed, is based on Winterich's account. Watkins has refused to speak to a reporter.

Winterich said the priest betrayed his trust and shattered his self-esteem, leading to years of therapy for depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.

"All those conversations about sexuality were meant to seduce me, whereas I was under the impression they were supposed to help me understand myself better," said Winterich, who dropped out of the seminary and now lives in a halfway house in Fort Lauderdale.

In late March, Winterich hired a lawyer to represent him.

News of Winterich's allegations against Watkins came just as Bishop F. Joseph Gossman of the Raleigh diocese had removed two other priests for allegations they contributed to child sexual abuse. In April, the Rev. Francis "Drew" Perry, pastor of St. Joseph in Burgaw and Transfiguration in Wallace, and the Rev. James Behan of Immaculate Conception in Wilmington, were asked to step down.

Watkins' case was different. His accuser was legally an adult. But unlike some dioceses across the country, Raleigh's "Code of Professional Responsibility" had been strengthened four years ago to include adult sexual abuse. The policy requires that any priest accused of adult sexual abuse will immediately be placed on administrative leave.

When the bishop's advisory council on sex abuse met, the members could not ignore their own policy.

"Adult sexual abuse," the policy says, "occurs when a person in ministry takes advantage sexually of another person, when there are unwanted sexual advances or suggestions, or when the sexual contact takes place in the context of providing pastoral care."


Disbelief, denial

Like many members of St. Eugene, Barry Mote, chairman of the parish council, heard of Watkins' removal on TV newscasts on April 24. The story led the news.

Mote couldn't believe what he was hearing, and felt successive waves of emotion: disbelief, dismay, denial. This was not the priest he knew.

As pastor of St. Eugene's for three years, Watkins had worked to unite the church. He had welcomed Hispanics and developed an adult religious education program. Many saw him as a model of spiritual practice. Others said he was articulate, well-read and a good cook.

Watkins has served in the Raleigh diocese since 1991, first at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raleigh, then at St. Michael's in Cary and St. Francis de Sales in Lumberton. In 1996, Watkins left the Marianist order into which he was ordained in 1963 and became a diocesan priest.

Mote wondered whether the allegations were true and whether they warranted such drastic action.

"Based on the information I have, I don't think it was fair to him," Mote said. "It could have been handled differently. For the length of time he's been a priest, I would have thought his word would carry more weight."

The first Sunday after his removal, Mote got up in church and asked parishioners to sign a letter to Bishop Gossman expressing support for their pastor and hoping for his swift return. The letter, which was translated into Spanish and distributed among the church's Hispanic families as well, was signed by nearly 500 people.

"So far, I don't think there's any indication this is valid," said George Knuckley, a lifelong member of the church, referring to the recent allegations. "This was a long time ago. It has nothing to do with children."

But Gossman had other reasons for removing Watkins. The priest had previously been accused of sexual misconduct and had undergone psychological treatment before he transferred to the diocese, Gossman said. Watkins' superiors in Ohio recommended him, however, and said he was a low risk.

Then, in 1995, a new allegation of sexual misconduct with an adult came up while Watkins was serving in the Triangle, Gossman said. The priest denied it, and Gossman gave him the benefit of the doubt, while ordering him to undergo additional psychological treatment.

When Winterich came forward in April, the bishop and his advisory council felt the number of allegations warranted a temporary removal.

When the bishop ordered a new psychological evaluation, Watkins balked. "He didn't want to go through it again," Gossman said.

On May 24, Watkins asked for an indefinite medical leave of absence. On May 29, the bishop granted his request.


Rooting out offenders

Although many church members, such as those in Wendell, are protective of their priests and skeptical of any allegations against them, some Catholics in the Raleigh diocese think it's a good idea if the current sexual abuse scandal roots out any priest who may have discredited the priesthood's professional code of conduct.

They say the scandal is not so much about pedophile priests as it is about a church culture that has protected its own at the expense of those most vulnerable. In Boston, where the courts have ordered the church to release internal documents, there is evidence that the church fostered secrecy and attempted to cover up abuses by shuffling priests from one parish to another.

"If the net is widened, it should be widened to include others who have been victimized by abuse of power," said Evelyn Mattern, a nun and the program associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh.

Mattern, for example, thinks Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law should resign, as do many priests.

As for adult sexual abuse, the Rev. David McBriar, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Durham, said the church should not tolerate it: "If [priests] are using the power of the office to seduce someone, that to me is terribly wrong. It's the equivalent of date rape."

But even these Catholics draw a sharp distinction between sexual abuse at whatever age and consensual sex between a priest and another person.

A priest who has an ongoing sexual relationship with someone outside the parish is unfaithful to his vows in much the same way as a married person who has an affair, several priests said. That kind of transgression presents a disciplinary matter for the church. But it's essentially a private matter that should not be subjected to the harsh glare of the news media, several priests suggested.

Such action is not covered anywhere in the diocese's "Code of Professional Responsibility."

"If it's consensual sex between adults, one of whom is a priest, it's a sin but it's not covered by our policy," Gossman said.

Explaining these distinctions to lay people is going to to be difficult. If there's one complaint members of St. Eugene voiced, it was the absence of more specific information about the charges and the process by which these cases are to be handled.

"There needs to be more precise guidelines to allow people to understand what happens if something is alleged, and the procedures you follow," said Joseph T. Howell, a member of the parish. "That's something everybody would welcome."


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