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Prosecutors Question Savannah Diocese's decisions On Convicted Priest

Concerns Documented Before The Rev. Wayland Brown Was Ordained in 1977

Feb 8, 2003 | AP

The Catholic Diocese of Savannah kept the Rev. Wayland Brown in its fold despite warning signs and abuse accusations, Maryland prosecutors allege.

Church leaders reportedly knew of problems a month before Brown was ordained in 1977, when the diocese's vocations director recommended Brown not enter the priesthood.

The diocese "would be better off to have no priest rather than an unholy priest," the Rev. Robert Mattingly wrote to then-Bishop Raymond Lessard in June 1977.

Lessard ordained Brown anyway.

"Bishop Lessard felt (Brown) met all the requirements for priesthood for the diocese," Diocesan spokeswoman Barbara King said last week.

Brown later was assigned to a Savannah parish with an affiliated school.

In a Rockville, Md., courtroom on Thursday, Brown was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually abusing two brothers while attending a Washington, D.C., seminary. The brothers were 12 and 13 years old when the abuse began in 1974 at their Gaithersburg, Md., home.

Church officials knew about concerns that Brown may have abused boys as early as 1969, a pre-sentencing memorandum filed in court alleges.

"There is a paper trail that demonstrates the Diocese of Savannah knew this was not a suitable candidate for the priesthood and they still chose to ordain him," said Peter Feeney, the assistant state's attorney for Montgomery County, Md.

Church leaders still under Lessard's leadership removed Brown from active ministry in July 1988.

Lessard, who resigned as bishop in February 1995 for health reasons, could not be reached for comment. He is listed as associate professor of systematic theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla.

Investigators arrested Brown at his Savannah home last year as a national sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was unfolding. Victims accused priests of sexually molesting them and church leaders were accused of cover-ups and shuffling errant priests among parishes despite knowing the abuse.

Excerpts from Brown's personnel file showed numerous instances where diocesan officials expressed concern about Brown's dealings with young boys, according to the Associated Press.

King had no comment on the sentencing or memorandum on Friday.

One of the brothers told Judge Ann S. Harrington on Thursday of the shame and bitter memories he has lived with since the abuse, which kept him from forming close relationships and drove him to consider suicide.

"Father Brown robbed me of my future and shackled me with chains of guilt," the man, now 42, said in a wavering voice. "Father Brown made me hate being me."

The pre-sentencing memorandum painted Brown as a serial molester who abused several boys throughout the 1970s and 1980s. One, who grew up in Georgia and now lives in Oklahoma, testified Thursday that Brown abused him on a trip to Disney World in 1978.

Brown became close with the Gaithersburg boys while counseling their mother on marital problems. He would sometimes spend the night at the family's Gaithersburg home and took the boys on hiking trips, to movies and concerts.

He apologized to the brothers and the Oklahoma man, all three of whom were in court.

"There is no excuse for what I did, there cannot be," Brown said. "I hated myself for what I did."

On Aug. 8, 1986, police in Richmond County contacted Lessard about allegations that Brown had sexually abused several young boys in Augusta.

Lessard sent Brown to St. Luke's Institute in suburban Washington, a center that treats priests for sexual disorders and other conditions, where Brown spent nine months and also was treated for alcoholism.

A letter filed with the memorandum shows Richmond County police Sgt. Darrell Wright contacted Lessard to locate Brown, who Wright said was not helpful. Wright wrote that he later discovered the priest had been sent to an undisclosed location and could not be reached.

In a statement to Judge Harrington on Thursday, Brown said he has remained sober and sexually abstinent since returning from St. Luke's in 1987.

After leaving St. Luke's, court records show he was assigned to St. James parish in Savannah as associate pastor, even though the church ran a school.

In May 1988, the school's principal, Sister Kathleen Gorman, wrote Lessard saying parents had asked that Brown not be allowed around young boys, even at Mass. Parents also complained Brown frequently spoke to their children about his genitalia and took students off the school grounds without informing the front office, the AP reported.

"I feel very strongly that we need to be supportive or our priests and go the extra mile to make situations work but this one is hard for me," Gorman wrote.

On July 8, 1988, Lessard removed Brown from St. James and prohibited him from conducting services.

Brown had lived in Savannah since he was removed from St. James, running a bookkeeping business for area merchants. Several of his clients and a neighbor vouched for his character in court, saying he was an honest man.

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