Churches Gird for Sex Abuse Findings

By Patrick Gannon
Star News (Wilmington NC)
February 27, 2004

Old wounds of many Roman Catholics will be reopened today.

At St. Mary Catholic Church in downtown Wilmington, the Rev. John Gillespie devoted recent homilies to preparing parishioners for today's release of a report that will shed further light on sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the United States.

Rev. Gillespie compared the report's release to a patient going to the hospital for an operation. Even though it initially will cause greater pain, it eventually will heal and lead to better spiritual health, he said.

"This is a chance to have a transformative suffering that leads to a whole new life," Rev. Gillespie said.

The report, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, is expected to say more than 4,000 priests have been accused of sexual misconduct nationwide since 1950. The scandal that exploded in Boston in January 2002 had ripple effects nationwide, and Southeastern North Carolina wasn't spared.

In April 2002, the Rev. Francis "Drew" Perry was removed from Transfiguration Catholic Church in Wallace after he |checked "No" on a questionnaire that asked whether he had ever been accused, charged or convicted of sexual misconduct, said Frank Morock, a spokesman for the Raleigh diocese.

Mr. Perry had been accused in the 1980s - before he became a Catholic priest - but the case was dropped, Mr. Morock said.

"He never abused anybody as a priest, and he denies any abuse in his past history," Mr. Morock said, adding that Mr. Perry has appealed to the Vatican for a review of his case.

Mr. Perry's whereabouts couldn't be learned, and a call Thursday to Transfiguration wasn't immediately returned.

Also in April 2002, the Rev. James Behan was removed from Immaculate Conception Church on Carolina Beach Road after allegations that he sexually abused a teenager 25 years earlier in Pennsylvania.

Rev. Behan remains en|sconced with his religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, said Beth Trapani, a spokeswoman for the Oblates.

She declined to say exactly where he was living. He is not engaged in any ministry with the public, she said.

"The only people he ministers to are fellow Oblates," Ms. Trapani said, "and he's doing well." Attempts to speak to Rev. Behan were unsuccessful.

The Rev. Barry Strong of Immaculate Conception said he spoke at the end of recent Masses about the John Jay report, telling parishioners it would garner national attention and once again put the parish in the spotlight.

"I got a lot of complimentary feedback after the Masses for bringing it up one more time and helping them get ready for this report," Rev. Strong said.

He said about 250 families have joined the parish since April 2002, while about 175 have left for various reasons. He acknowledged that some families left because of the abuse scandal but said some have come back.

Rev. Strong said the parish dedicated a new Faith Formation Center for adult and youth spiritual education in July 2003 and is making plans for a much larger church.

Parish 'thriving'

"I think we have not only recovered, but we are a thriving Christian community," he said.

Mr. Morock of the Raleigh diocese said it was up to individual pastors whether they wanted to speak to parishioners about the John Jay study.

"Some pastors are not," Mr. Morock said. "Some say their people haven't talked about it. ...We've had people call us and e-mail us saying enough is enough."

The Raleigh diocese has reported that from 1950-2002, 32 people made allegations of sexual misconduct against 15 priests in the diocese. Two priests were exonerated. The diocese paid $ 166,500 in settlements to alleged victims. It also paid an additional $ 125,888 in legal fees and counseling for victims and alleged abusers from 1988-2002. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, the diocese paid another settlement of $ 28,750, records show.

At St. Mary in Wilmington, a four-page magazine article, "After the Earthquake," was distributed in church bulletins last weekend.

The article, published in the Catholic weekly America last month, suggests reasons that members of the Catholic Church can expect fewer incidents of clergy abuse in the future.

'A better church'

"The sexual abuse crisis, although horrific and painful, ultimately will make for a better church, with far less possibility of future abuse of children by priests," Thomas G. Plante wrote.

According to the article, the majority of clerical sex offenders were ordained around the early 1970s at a time when the atmosphere in the church and American society may have put young priests at a higher risk of sexual misconduct. It said seminaries, dioceses and religious orders now routinely hire psychologists to conduct evaluations of applicants and background checks are standard procedure. And it noted that widespread publicity about the scandal has made it "almost impossible for priests to find themselves in situations where sexual abuse can occur."

The Rev. Terrence Collins of St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Hampstead said he planned to mention the John Jay report in homilies today and this weekend. He encouraged parishioners to go to the diocese Web site,, for more information. He said St. Jude has relied on communication to heal.

"All we've done is give open and honest communication, and I think that's the best thing," he said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.