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Lipscomb Says He Received First Abuse Allegations In 1997

Mar 19, 2003 | Birmingham News

Mobile Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb defended Tuesday his handling of a priest who admitted sexually abusing children, and said that no other priests actively serving in the archdiocese are subjects of credible accusations of a similar nature.

But Lipscomb said that knowing what he knows today, he should not have transferred the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock from Mobile to Montgomery once the first abuse allegations were confirmed.

"In retrospect, I would have acted otherwise," Lipscomb said at a news conference.

Lipscomb has come under fire since informing parishioners at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Montgomery that their former pastor was the subject of four allegations of sexual abuse over a period of years.

Sherlock, 62, a longtime Mobile priest, was pastor of St. Peter's from July 1997 to this February, when he resigned from the priesthood.

Allegations of abuse said to have happened in Mobile are the subject of an investigation by the Mobile County district attorney's office, which received a set of documents from the archdiocese on Tuesday.

Lipscomb said Tuesday that there would be parish meetings at three of the six Mobile area churches that Sherlock served between 1966 and 1997.

During the nearly hour-long news conference, Lipscomb outlined a partial history of Sherlock's abuse and reiterated his belief that revised church law, which requires that priests be removed from public ministry after "even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor past, present or future," is too stringent.

"We do believe in something like repentance and change," Lipscomb said. "We are in the business of changing people from bad to better."

Lipscomb said Tuesday that he received the first allegation of abuse by Sherlock in February 1997. The victim's counselor informed Lipscomb of the incident, which occurred during the mid-1970s, Lipscomb said.

Lipscomb refused to describe the nature of the abuse, where it had occurred or the age of the victim. Citing matters of confidentiality, Lipscomb would not specify the gender of the first or any of the victims.

On Monday, the Very Rev. Michael L. Farmer, chancellor of the archdiocese, said he believed that the four alleged victims are male.

After hearing the first allegation, Lipscomb said, he did not ask Sherlock to resign. Instead, Sherlock began psychological evaluation, Lipscomb said, and in April 1997, a therapist told Lipscomb that Sherlock's "profile shows no indication of sexual deviation or other abnormal behavior on Father Sherlock's part."

Lipscomb would not identify the therapist who had conducted the tests, but said that the person was "a recognized expert in his field."

Before moving Sherlock from St. Pius X Catholic Church in Mobile to Montgomery in July 1997, Lipscomb said, he and Sherlock discussed the situation extensively. At the time, Lipscomb said, "I was convinced this was a past instance that occurred years earlier and was not operative in his life."

Then, about three years after moving Sherlock, two more victims came forward and offered credible allegations, Lipscomb said.

Lipscomb could not offer a time frame as to when those instances of abuse had occurred, nor would he describe the way in which the victims were abused.

Lipscomb said he once again consulted with Sherlock's psychologist, who, Lipscomb said, "assured me that he still did not feel he was a danger."

The archbishop said he did not remove Sherlock after learning of the second and third allegations "because of his shame and remorse and the fact that I did not consider him to be a danger. I felt it was behind him." Lipscomb also said that in many respects, Sherlock had been effective in his ministry.

Lipscomb said Sunday that he was prompted to speak to parishioners at St. Peter's after learning last week of a fourth allegation of abuse by Sherlock.

Tuesday afternoon, Mobile County District Attorney John M. Tyson Jr. said that his office is continuing its investigation of Sherlock. Since Sunday, Tyson said, several individuals have come forward saying they were victims of Sherlock.

Tyson would not specify how many people had come forward or whether they had approached him about other clergy members as well.

Tyson did not specify whether the people who contacted his office were the same individuals known to the archdiocese or whether they represented new cases.

The district attorney said that on Tuesday afternoon he received "the first set of records" he requested Monday from the archdiocese. He would not comment about the files' contents, but said he was pleased with the archdiocese's cooperation.

The documents may become pieces of evidence if legal action is taken, Tyson said, but he would not release the information during the course of the investigation.

Nationwide, some Catholic dioceses have re sisted giving up internal files to police, prosecutors or members of the public. Religious officials in Boston were ordered to open their files by a court. Those in New Hampshire did so to settle a threatened misdemeanor prosecution.

Tyson said his investigation was focused strictly on Sherlock and did not include Lipscomb.

During his news conference Tuesday, Lipscomb did not disclose Sherlock's whereabouts. Earlier in the day, Keith Franklin said Sherlock had been staying at his Mobile home, but wasn't any longer. Franklin declined to comment about the allegations against Sherlock.

Sherlock's resignation, which was effective Feb. 28, came one day before the norms for policies dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors became law for all the dioceses in the United States.

Due to the revised policy, which requires that offending priests or deacons be permanently removed for a single act of sexual abuse, Lipscomb said that he had expected Sherlock's resignation to come sooner, but that he "did not press the issue."

Now, Lipscomb said, he would not place such trust in psychological evaluations like those offered for Sherlock.

"The circumstances are far more sophisticated in treating them, but the consequences are far more Draconian," Lipscomb said. "I have to remove him."

Lipscomb, who has previously voiced his belief that "recidivism is not necessarily a given" among sexual abusers, said he still thinks rehabilitation may be effective in some cases.

Asked if his behavior could be compared to that of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, who knowingly transferred abusive priests from one parish to the next and later resigned, Lipscomb said it could not.

Sherlock, Lipscomb said, "was disciplined in a number of ways. He was taken out of a parish that was much better. He was moved to a smaller parish where there were little or no opportunities, it was felt, to be with young people. And he underwent a course of psychiatric psychological evaluation."

In the midst of Gulf Coast Catholics' expression of shock and outrage at his handling of Sherlock's case, Lipscomb said that he had not considering resigning from his post as spiritual shepherd of the region's 64,000 Catholics.

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