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Ex-Area Priest Suspended

Dec 29, 2002 | The Birmingham News

A Catholic priest who formerly served in the Birmingham area has been removed from a Kentucky church after an investigation of allegations by four men who said they were sexually abused by him as boys.

The Rev. John Baptist Ormechea, who was pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Fairfield from 1977 to 1979, was suspended from St. Agnes Catholic Church in Louisville after prosecutors presented allegations of child molestation against him to church officials.

Ormechea, a member of the Passionist religious order, was accused of sexually abusing boys at Immaculate Conception Church in Chicago from 1979 to 1981.

To fill the vacancy in Louisville, the Passionist order tapped a priest stationed in Birmingham. The Rev. Albert Schwer, who had been living in the priests' residence at Holy Family Catholic Church in Ensley, has gone to serve the church in Louisville.

The Rev. Phil Paxton, pastor of St. Mary's, announced Ormechea's suspension and the priest transfer last week.

"It was a surprise," Paxton said. "You hope the scandals can subside, we can have reconciliation, and we can do better and move on."

Losing a priest in Birmingham strains the situation for Catholics here, he said.

"There aren't too many priests who can cover for me or Father Bob," Paxton said. Paxton and the Rev. Bob Crossmyer, pastor at Holy Family, are the only priests remaining at the Passionists' priest residence in Ensley.

The Passionist priests came to Birmingham in 1937 to serve the city's small community of black Catholics during the segregation era. The Passionists helped start two churches, a hospital, two elementary schools and a high school for blacks. Holy Family Hospital closed two decades ago, but the schools and churches are still going.

Holy Family Church, started in 1938, has weekly worship attendance of more than 200. St. Mary's, started in 1943, has weekly attendance of about 130.

Paxton said he knew of no allegations of misconduct against Ormechea while he served in Alabama.

Elizabeth Fox, a member of St. Mary's, said Ormechea was with her when her husband, Orlando Fox Jr., died in 1979. "He was a close friend," she said. "This was the first church he served as a parish priest."

She said she was shocked to hear the allegations against Ormechea.

"It's kind of disbelief," she said. "I'm not saying it didn't happen. I can't believe it. I'm going to be in prayer about it."

Her son, Orlando Fox III, said he was an altar boy for Ormechea and knew of no improper conduct. "He was a very fine man. I'm shocked."

The allegations against Ormechea were investigated by Chicago prosecutors, who summarized the results in a Dec. 11 letter that was sent to Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly. The investigation was prompted after an allegation by Timothy Nockels, 36, a Chicago stockbroker.

Nockels said Ormechea became a close friend of his family and visited their home several times a week for dinner while Nockels was about 11 or 12 years old. The priest would visit his bedroom on the pretext of saying goodnight and sexually abuse him, he alleged. Nockels ended his affidavit by asking prosecutors to protect other children. "If you do one thing, stop Ormechea," it said. "Get him away from kids."

Illinois prosecutors said they would have brought charges against Ormechea, but the state's statute of limitations had expired.

John Meehan, a member of St. Mary's Catholic Church who has joined the organization Voices of the Faithful, which is calling for renewal in the church, said the continuing clergy sex abuse scandal has shown the need for reform.

"I think we need a change in our church," he said. "Lay people need more of a say."

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