Priest Lamented Scandal's Impact on Innocent

Union Leader (Manchester NH)
January 10, 2003

NEW LONDON (AP) — The priest who apparently killed himself after being accused of sexual abuse told a friend months earlier he had grave misgivings about the church's handling of the sex abuse scandal.

"The minute a man is accused, he (is) immediately suspended," the Rev. Richard Lower wrote in April, nine months before he was accused himself. "He is forced to leave his rectory within the hour. The result of this horrendous policy is that the priest is seen to be guilty until proven innocent."

The 57-year-old priest's body was found Dec. 29, three days after the Diocese of Manchester informed him that a man had reported being molested by Lower nearly 30 years earlier at a church in Littleton.

Lower neither acknowledged nor denied the claim before his death, based on public statements by church and civil authorities.

Police say it will be weeks or months before they determine the cause of Lower's death, but church officials and Lower's family say there were signs pointing to suicide.

The diocese's policy is that no priest facing a credible allegation of sexual abuse, no matter how old, will be allowed to serve in active ministry. The diocese told Lower on Dec. 27 the allegation against him would be reported to the police and that he would be suspended from Our Lady of Fatima Church, where he had served for 13 years.

The Rev. Edward Arsenault, the diocesan official who handles abuse allegations, said protecting parishioners while being fair to priests is a challenge.

"In parish communities where priests have been put on leave, parishioners already believe them guilty," Arsenault said. "I know there is some expense. But I am confident that our policy is fair."

Lower wrote the letter in April to Ryan Smith, whom he met while Smith was attending Colby Sawyer College in New London.

Smith, 24 and now living in California, hesitated to draw conclusions about Lower's innocence or guilt from the letter. In a letter to Lower's congregation, Smith said his sympathies and support go to the victim if the allegation is true.

But he also asked the congregation to remember Lower as they knew him and not only for the accusation.

"I have to remember Father Lower for everything positive he did for me. And for everything he did for the church and for how many people he affected there," he told the Concord Monitor in an interview Wednesday.

Smith said he started attending Lower's church as a freshman in 1996 and eventually sought him out outside of church.

"He talked with me like a father would," Smith said. "He really helped me. I was being really hard on myself for something I had done, and he helped me understand that people made mistakes. He told me that God was forgiving me."

Smith stayed in contact with Lower after graduating in 2000. The letter in April was the last he received from the priest.

"You ended your note with the hope that I was enjoying good health and happiness," Lower wrote. "Unfortunately, I have been struggling with both."

Lower said he had had his sixth back operation. He also got blood poisoning last year and lost his mother in November.

His letter turned to the sexual abuse scandal.

"With all the bad press the church has received lately, it is very difficult to either work as a priest in public or even to recuperate as a priest," he wrote. "My heart is broken with the pain and suffering that some of my brother priests have caused. There is no justification for pedophilia."

At the same time, Lower could see no justification for the way it was being handled.

"As always, the press has had a heyday with this topic and reported things whether true or untrue," Lower wrote. "Because the church did not handle it properly in the past, they now have a policy of no tolerance... Another fallout to the scandals is that a 'witch hunt' has begun.

"It feels like all priests are suspect and no one can be trusted," Lower wrote. "Please pray for us and know that not all priests are evil or perverts."


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