Accused N.H. Priest a Presumed Suicide

By Walter V. Robinson and Matt Carroll
Boston (MA) Globe
December 31, 2002

The body of a New London, N.H., priest was found Sunday in a wilderness area in nearby Enfield after he learned that he had been accused of molesting a minor in 1973 and was likely to be publicly removed from his parish during an investigation.

The Very Rev. Richard T. Lower, 57, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church, is believed to have committed suicide, Patrick McGee, a Manchester Diocese spokesman, said last night.

The Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, the diocesan chancellor and a friend of Lower, said last night that when he informed Lower of the allegation late on Thursday, he asked Lower if there was any chance he might harm himself.

"He was adamant he was going to be fine," Arsenault said.

Enfield Police Captain Richard Crate said a hiker found Lower's body at about 10 a.m. Sunday on a trail not far from where his car was parked - about 24 hours after the diocese and Lower's relatives alerted police that he was missing.

Lower's body was found dressed in street clothes and there was no visible sign of trauma, according to Crate. He said the cause of death has not been determined. Crate and Arsenault declined to say whether the pastor left a note.

Arsenault said he tried unsuccessfully late Friday afternoon and again on Saturday to reach Lower to inform him that the diocesan review board had decided he would have to take an administrative leave while the allegation was being investigated.

Under the diocesan policy, the reason for the leave would have been made public.

If Lower's death is ruled a suicide, he would be the third Catholic priest known to have taken his own life this year after facing charges of sexually molesting a minor.

In April, the Rev. Donald A. Rooney, 48, shot himself in Hinckley Township, Ohio, after learning that he had been accused of sexually abusing a young girl in 1980. In May, the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, 64, of the Bridgeport, Conn., Diocese, hanged himself at the St. Luke Institute in Maryland, where he had been sent for evaluation after his diocese was informed of accusations that he sexually abused boys during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The allegation against Lower was the first accusing him of sexually abusing a minor, according to McGee. However, in 1989, when Lower was pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Merrimack, N.H., an adult male accused Lower of "inappropriate sexual conduct" in a complaint to the diocese, McGee said.

He said diocesan records show that Lower acknowledged knowing the man, but denied the allegation. At the time, McGee said the records show, Lower resigned from the parish for unrelated health reasons and underwent a psychiatric evaluation.

The following year, then-New Hampshire Bishop Odore Gendron appointed Lower to be pastor in New London.

Arsenault, along with Manchester Bishop John B. McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Christian, met with about 100 parishioners on Sunday night at Our Lady of Fatima Church to inform them about Lower's death and about the allegation against him.

Carl Fitzgerald, a parish member for 20 years, described the general mood as "shock." Before the meeting, he said, several parishioners were aware that Lower had died, but few knew his death may have been linked to a sexual misconduct complaint.

"People were basically kind of floored," he said.

"He's been a good pastor for the past 12 years," added Fitzgerald, whose wife, Cheryl, is the parish's pastoral associate and religious educator. "He was an outgoing, gregarious guy."

In addition to being pastor, Lower was also an episcopal vicar with the title of "Very Reverend," one of several senior pastors in the diocese who have some oversight over other parishes in their surrounding area.

McGee and Arsenault, in separate interviews, said a man from out-of-state contacted Arsenault on Thursday to accuse Lower of molesting him in 1973 in Littleton, N.H., where Lower was assigned to St. Rose of Lima Church. The diocesan officials said Lower's accuser was a minor at the time.

Arsenault said he informed Lower of the accusation in a Thursday meeting at the chancery in Manchester. Lower, he said, was upset at the allegation. According to McGee, the priest neither confirmed nor denied the charge.

In addition to seeking assurances from Lower that he did not intend to harm himself, Arsenault said he urged Lower to have someone accompany him home, an offer the priest declined. But he said Lower heeded his recommendation that he contact a priest friend and his physician. "We were all pretty confident he was not suicidal," Arsenault said.

Lower had had health problems recently, including spinal surgery and a serious blood infection, McGee said. And last month, his mother died.

Arsenault said he last talked with Lower about midday Friday, and told him that after consulting with McCormack, he was going to recommend to the review board that Lower take administrative leave until the charge against him could be examined.

But after the board agreed, he said, he was unable to contact the priest. "When I could not reach him Saturday morning, I became very concerned," Arsenault said. According to Arsenault and police, Lower was last seen calling on a hospital patient on Saturday.

McCormack, in a letter to Lower's parish, wrote that the "anguish, loss and fear that Fr. Lower most likely was dealing with must have diminished his capacity to recognize the inestimable value of his own personal dignity and the pain that his suicide would bring to many...."

The bishop also asked the parishioners to "pray for and continue to offer to assist the man who made this accusation."

McCormack, Christian, and other priests will concelebrate a funeral Mass for Lower at his parish on Friday morning.


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