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Priest Removed Over Sex Allegation

Mar 17, 2003 | Tuscaloosa News The archbishop of the Mobile Catholic Church archdiocese on Sunday told parishioners of Montgomery’s oldest Catholic Church that he removed their parish priest three weeks ago over allegations he sexually molested as many as four boys years ago.

The Rev. Oscar Lipscomb told about 150 parishioners of St. Peter’s Church, including Attorney General Bill Pryor, that he removed the Rev. Alex Sherlock after a fourth allegation of sexual abuse of a minor emerged and followed three that Lipscomb said he knew about “years ago."

Sherlock came to the Montgomery church about five or six years ago from Mobile, apparently where the alleged actions occurred.

“A priest who has admitted this is no longer viable," Lipscomb said. “This was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do."

Lipscomb said he takes responsibility for Sherlock, whom he thought he could send to Montgomery as a pastor to conduct an effective ministry.

“But I was wrong," said Lipscomb, who read from a prepared statement he wouldn’t release. He declined to answer any but the most general questions.

He said he did not know how to contact Sherlock. An effort to locate him through a relative was referred to Lipscomb’s office.

Parishioners reacted with anger, disbelief, shock and incredulity to the information about Sherlock, who is from Montgomery. He recently turned 60 and is thought to have been a priest since his late 20s.

“There better not be another one sent here," said John Johnston, a father of two.

“I just feel betrayed they would send someone here with prior knowledge of it," Johnston said. “And then also I feel betrayed because it seems the only reason they got rid of or fired Father Sherlock was because this fourth incident came out."

Pryor last year said he supported legislation to include members of the clergy among those who have to be reported to criminal authorities in allegations of child molestation.

After hearing Lipscomb, Pryor released a statement in which he urged anyone who has been molested to report it to criminal authorities. Pryor also urged support for a bill that has been introduced in the current legislative session requiring reporting of sexual abuse by clergy.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham, in the Senate, and Rep. Allen Boothe, D-Troy, in the House.

Pryor grew up in Mobile, and Sherlock taught one of his high school classes.

Pryor said he is recusing himself from any potential criminal action but said his office’s investigation and violent crime divisions would “promptly respond to any request for assistance from any law enforcement agency."

“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. Pryor said the alleged victims of the abuse have refused to press criminal charges.

“I urge any victim of this kind of despicable criminal activity to contact your local district attorney or police or sheriff’s department immediately," Pryor said. “My prayers are with all victims of this scandal in the Catholic Church."

Ministers in Alabama are exempt from the list of occupations required by state law to report suspected child abuse or neglect. The law requires doctors, nurses, teachers and others who “render aid or medical assistance to any child" to report suspected abuse.

Pryor’s support for the proposed law came last year amid turmoil over revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests and cover-ups by the church hierarchy.

In Boston, there were calls for the resignation of Archdiocese Cardinal Bernard Law, who ultimately stepped down, over allegations that he didn’t fire a priest accused of child sexual abuse, but merely shifted him from parish to parish.

In an interview last year with The Tuscaloosa News, Bishop David Foley of the Birmingham diocese discussed allegations of impropriety involving youths in the 1980s and earlier against priests. Two were retired before Foley took over the diocese eight years ago. Foley himself removed the third, the Rev. Charles Cross, last year after an Arkansas man, Robert. W. Wilford, alleged that Cross molested Wilford when he was a teenager in Birmingham in the 1960s, according to the Decatur Daily. Cross denied the charges.

Foley said he knew of no priests under suspicion of child sexual abuse in his diocese, which takes in Tuscaloosa but not Montgomery.

The Alabama Supreme Court threw out one lawsuit in 1996 in a ruling that said the alleged victim’s repressed memory of something that supposedly happened 15 years earlier was no reason to allow such a claim, the Associated Press reported.

Several months ago Sherlock delivered a homily, or sermon, about the church’s new policy on priest sexual abuse. “We’ve been reading about this and all this deliberation taking place and we had a pedophile priest giving Mass and homilies," Downey said.

Lipscomb said he removed Sherlock Feb. 28.

He said that he learned of the three allegations and in the 1990s had Sherlock attend a psychiatric session to determine if he was fit to continue as a priest.

Apparently he believed he was because, he said, he sent him to Montgomery. But a fourth allegation that surfaced recently caused him to remove Sherlock.

One St. Peter’s parishioner, who didn’t want her name used, said Sherlock was a good priest. “To be sitting here judging him and he’s not here to defend himself is wrong," she said.

But parishioner Vicky Downey confronted Lipscomb and compared him to Law because he covered up the allegations that Lipscomb knew of when he sent Sherlock to St. Peter’s in 1997 or 1998.

“I feel totally betrayed," Downey said. “To think we’ve had a zero-tolerance policy."

Archdiocese chancellor, or administrator, the Rev. Michael Farmer said Sherlock had been pastor at three churches in Mobile County, St. Pius X, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Thomas in Chickasaw.

Sherlock’s removal caused two parishes in Montgomery to become upset, and letters were sent to Lipscomb.

Three Sundays ago, the Rev. Stephen Martin told St. Peter’s parishioners that he was the new parish priest because Sherlock had retired for health reasons. Martin had been pastor at cross-town Queen of Mercy Catholic Church.

Lipscomb apologized to Martin for misleading him about Sherlock’s departure.

Lipscomb said none of the allegations involved the time that Sherlock has been at St. Peter’s.

Lipscomb said that the three did not wish to press criminal charges and that two of them did not feel the need for counseling, but Lipscomb would cooperate if criminal charges were filed. The third is receiving counseling, he said. He said he did not have details about the fourth allegation.

Mobile County District attorney John Tyson III said he was not familiar with Lipscomb’s actions. The law over sexual abuse changed during the 1980s and Tyson said he wasn’t sure whether charges are still possible.

Montgomery is in the Mobile Archdiocese while north Alabama, including Tuscaloosa, is in the Birmingham Diocese. Both have written policies against priest sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse scandals have cost the church millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements. In Dallas three years ago, a jury said the Catholic Diocese had concealed a priest’s abuse of boys and awarded victims nearly $120 million.

Under a new policy approved last year, priests found guilty of pedophilia can be dismissed and stripped of their priestly functions.

The Mobile Archdiocese since 1995 has had a zero-tolerance policy: “As an archdiocese, we are committed to action -to prevent sexual misconduct before it occurs; to respond quickly and decisively when the tragedy of sexual misconduct does occur; and, afterwards, to provide comfort and assistance and the healing process for victims and their families," Lipscomb said in “The Catholic Week," the official publication of the Mobile Archdiocese.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops also have a zero-tolerance policy. The church’s first obligation is to victims, the policy says, including counseling, spiritual assistance, support and other services.

Church officials must report allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to authorities and must cooperate with authorities.

The new policy requires church officials to remove a minister for a single act of sexual abuse of a minor and they could be dismissed from the priesthood, “if the case so warrants."

“Because sexual abuse of a minor is a crime in all jurisdictions in the United States, for the sake of the common good and observing the provisions of canon law, the diocesan bishop/eparch shall exercise this power of governance to ensure that any priest or deacon who has committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor as described above shall not continue in active ministry," the policy said.

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