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Priest Molested Children, Montgomery Church Told

Mar 17, 2003 | Birmingham News

Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb told St. Peter's Catholic Church parishioners here Sunday that he allowed the Rev. J. Alex Sherlock to continue as priest at the church knowing that he had sexually abused three children.

Without acknowledging the past abuses, Lipscomb let Sherlock quietly resign three weeks ago, telling church staff and members that he was ill.

Sherlock had been pastor of St. Peter's since 1997. Most of his 37 years as a priest were served in Mobile, where he was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and St. Pius X Church, a parish of more than 1,000 families. He was a fighter for civil rights during the late 1960s and was arrested during a protest march.

Sherlock was "deeply affected by remorse and shame" and asked to resign, Lipscomb told the parish. But a new allegation has arisen, and now the archbishop said he thinks Sherlock may have lied about his encounters with children.

The previous three cases were "long past," Lipscomb said, but a fourth case, "while not current, could not be characterized as long past."

Revelations of child molestations by priests that sadden and stunned the nation last year has found their way to the state's capital. At least 325 of the 46,000 priests in the United States have either been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the crisis erupted in January 2002, according to the Associated Press.

Rumors surrounding Sherlock's resignation, new allegations, and concern that the accusations were about to be made public led Lipscomb to meet with the parish. Montgomery is a part of the Mobile diocese.

Emotions were raw during Sunday's meeting. Some parishioners cried, many defended Sherlock and others angrily complained that the Archdiocese of Mobile had "betrayed" them.

"Does the Catholic Church think so little of its children that it would risk even one child for the sake of a priest?" asked parishioner Vicky Downey.

"He should have been arrested," Downey said. "He preyed on a child for 10 years; I think he should definitely be arrested."

Lipscomb apologized to the parish and said he thought it was safe to allow Sherlock to continue at St. Peter's.

"I take responsibility because I trusted Father Sherlock, and thought I had it under control to leave him in effectual ministry, and that I would leave no one else in danger," the archbishop read from a written statement. He said the priest has been stripped of his duties.

Lipscomb tried to reassure the parish by saying he believed no children of St. Peter's had been abused by Sherlock, but he asked anyone with information regarding abuse to come forward.

State Attorney General Bill Pryor made the same plea. Pryor is a member of St. Peter's, and Sherlock was one of his high school teachers at McGill Catholic School in Mobile.

"I was horrified this week to learn that Alex Sherlock was removed from service as a priest because of his admitted sexual abuse of minors," Pryor said in a prepared statement. "I urge any victim of this kind of despicable criminal activity to contact your local district attorney or police or sheriff's department immediately."

Spoke against abusers:

When former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law resigned amid allegations that he failed to protect children from being abused by known and alleged molesters, Sherlock was quoted as saying Law should have resigned months earlier.

He described the priest sex abuse scandals as a "dark night of the soul," and said priests who abused children should pay for their crimes.

Priests and other church authorities are now required to comply with all applicable laws with respect to reporting allegations of sexual molestation to law enforcement authorities. Pryor is pushing to get the state's child abuse reporting law amended to include clergy.

Lipscomb said he had spoken with Sherlock's three previous victims and offered help. But the archbishop refused to say whether the help was monetary or psychological.

One person accepted the assistance, but the others did not. Lipscomb refused to say where those abuses took place, but he did say that after Sherlock admitted to abusing the children, a psychologist tested him and found he was no longer a threat.

All three victims have refused to press criminal charges.

Parishioners confused:

Alice Smith, a parishioner, said Sherlock served the community well and brought many people to faith. "We should not be here judging him," she said.

Another member said the priest was such a "gracious" man, he shouldn't be `irritated" by the media.

But a majority of those attending Sunday's meeting said they thought the matter should be aired publicly.

"The church has now released a known pedophile onto society," Downey said.

Many others left the meeting confused and sad.

"He married many of us and baptized our children. We are hurting for the children and for Father Sherlock," said Betsy Hosp. "I would equate it to a death in the family."

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