As the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte is in the midst of a comprehensive review of clergy personnel files in search of any indication of sexual abuse of minors, Father Patrick J. Winslow explained the ways the entity’s efforts over the years have focused on education, prevention and accountability.
Winslow met with media on Oct. 23 at the St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Hickory to discuss several issues: how the Diocese of Charlotte has responded to the abuse crisis since 2002, how current abuse allegations are handled and the work of the comprehensive review.
Local ties to allegations
A Pennsylvania grand jury filed a report in 2018 revealing hundreds of priests who were accused of abusing more than 1,000 children and that church leaders took steps to cover up the crimes. As a result of this, several dioceses and orders have decided to release the names of accused priests.
In December 2018, the Maryland Province Jesuits released a list of names of priests who were “credibly” accused of sexually abusing minors. The Diocese of Charlotte has since followed suit, and announced its plan to release names by the end of 2019.
The Charlotte Observer reported in April that survivors of sexual abuse were demanding that the Catholic Diocese release a list of priests accused of such abuse. It was at this time that members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests group released five priest names with sexual abuse accusations, the publication stated. Additionally, The Charlotte Observer stated that the diocese was “under discussion” of releasing names at that time.
The Charlotte Diocese is over several High Country parishes, including St. Elizabeth of the Hill Country in Boone, Church of the Epiphany in Blowing Rock, St. Francis of Assisi in Jefferson and St. Bernadette in Linville.
With the release of the names by Maryland Province Jesuits, H. Cornell Bradley was found to have multiple allegations of sexual abuse against him in Ocean City, Md., and Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and 1980s. The Diocese of Charlotte confirmed in January that it considered reports of abuse by Damion J. Lynch to be credible. Both men pastored at Boone’s St. Elizabeth of the Hill Country in the 1990s.
A complaint was filed in February with the Boone Police Department by a 40-year-old man from Asheville saying he was abused by Bradley and Lynch at St. Elizabeth’s of the Hill Country when he was a minor. The diocese did not comment on his specific claims at this time.
The Watauga Democrat has previously reported that the diocese has twice settled with a Boone family over allegations that Lynch had sexually abused twin boys in the 1990s.
Lynch was placed on administrative leave in 1995 by Bishop William G. Curlin and ordered to undergo psychological testing.
The diocese paid $87,000 to the family of the twins to settle a complaint of sexual abuse against one of the boys, according to court records. The settlement included an agreement not to publicly discuss the matter. However, the family filed a civil complaint in Watauga County Superior Court against Lynch, Curlin and the Charlotte Diocese in February 1998. The lawsuit ended in a settlement of an undisclosed amount paid by the diocese the following March.
Response to abuse until now
The Diocese of Charlotte was established in 1972 and currently serves 46 counties, 92 parishes and missions, 19 schools and upwards of 450,000 Catholic parishioners. It employs 2,500 people in its parishes, schools and Catholic charities as well as has 244 clergy, according to Winslow. He added that no clergy accused of abuse of a minor remains in ministry, as the diocese follows a “zero tolerance” policy.
Winslow said the Charlotte diocese adopted a sexual misconduct policy in 1989 and created one of the nation’s first independent review boards in 1995.
“Most allegations we are dealing with today involve abuse that happened decades ago that is coming to light,” Winslow said. “The nature of this type of pain is often times kept in the dark and not brought to the light until much time has passed. The passage of time doesn’t make the crime of sexual abuse any less significant.”
Winslow reiterated that the review is not reflective of a problem that is happening at this moment, but rather a problem of the diocese’s past.
According to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, academic studies have found that abuse victims — particularly men who were abused as boys — can take 20 years or more to discuss their abuse.
Winslow explained that he studied church law from 2007 to 2012 and became licensed in ecclesiastical law. He was appointed as the vicar general and chancellor of the diocese in April, and previously served as a member of the diocese’s Lay Review Board. The review board investigates allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by clergy and other church personnel, and then advises the bishop on how to respond if allegations are found credible.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the sex abuse crisis “hit the spotlight,” according to Winslow. It was then that the U.S. Bishops adopted a Charter for Protection of Children and Young People aiming to create a safe environment for children, allow for healing and reconciliation for victims, ensure prompt and effective response to allegations as well as hold offenders accountable.
In terms of prevention, Winslow said the diocese conducts criminal background checks of all clergy members and volunteers. Clergy members also undergo an intensive vetting process.
Clergy are encouraged to follow protocols in terms of ratios of chaperons to children as well as not being permitted to drive in a vehicle with a minor without another adult present. This is enhanced by the rule that every door in buildings must have a window, Winslow said.
Additionally, all employees, volunteers and parishioners go through a mandatory training, Protecting God’s Children. The training instructs participants on how to see the signs of those who may have been abused and are encouraged to report such signs immediately.
Catholic Diocese of Charlotte allegation protocol
The first step of handling a sexual abuse allegation is the alleged incident becoming known, followed by the diocese notifying external civil authorities as well as starting an internal review. Internally, the diocese temporarily removes the accused from ministry to “make sure nobody is in harm’s way,” Winslow said. The Lay Review Board is then engaged and allowed to investigate the issue and makes a recommendation to the bishop based on its findings.
Winslow said he was unaware of any situation where the external and internal review processes came to different conclusions.
The review board deems an allegation of abuse as “credible” by not finding guilt, but rather the semblance of truth of the allegation being more probable than not. To determine this, the board looks to see if the accused admits to the abuse, if information is corroborated through external information, if more than one victim has came forward and if the name of the accused has been published in another diocese’s list.
If credible information is gathered, the person is removed permanently from ministry, other parishes are informed, a report is made public — typically in the Catholic News Herald — and the name is included in the official credibly accused list.
The accused are removed from leadership positions but are not barred from attending the church.
“As awful (of an act) that people have done, we still hold out hope that they can get their lives in order and ultimately change, convert and find God,” Winslow said. “We never want to close the doors on anybody and regard them as being unsalvageable.”
Historical review process, publishing of names
The historical review has been a yearlong process for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, with the help of the U.S. Investigative Security Services. More than 1,000 personnel files with more than 100,000 pages are being reviewed for any possible child sex abuse information.
“We’ve discovered in very recent years that historical vetting of the past brings healing to people who have been victimized,” Winslow said. “This is a further step the church can take to help them find some peace.”
If something “comes to light” with the historical cases, the diocese will engage its internal and external procedures. The internal process would include the review board’s recommendation to Charlotte Diocese Bishop Peter J. Jugis, and then he would make necessary disciplinary action. Winslow said that some people included on the list may be deceased with cases that go back a number of years.
In cases where people have been affected by sex abuse, the church makes counseling and resources available, Winslow said.
Winslow issued an apology on behalf of the diocese, stating, “We profoundly apologize to those who have suffered sexual abuse by clergy and for the church’s historical failure to respond effectively to these gravely immoral acts.”