A teen-age boy who called it an accident when a local priest grabbed his crotch in a pool has changed his story, prompting a county attorney’s investigation.
The priest, the Rev. Steven G. Stencil, has been barred from practicing his ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Tucson since February 2001 for violating a policy about being in the company of minors overnight.
He is now under investigation in the pool incident, which took place during a house party in Casa Grande in 1999 when the boy was 17. The diocese is reviewing the case and has filed a report with the Pima County Attorney’s Office, diocesan spokesman Fred Allison said Tuesday.
“I will support the investigative procedure,” Stencil said Tuesday, confirming that he’s under investigation. “I don’t know what I can say or do other than to say it was an accident. . . . I’m saddened and shocked, but I don’t want to have it played out in the media.”
Stencil is currently living in Tucson.
The youth said Stencil, then pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Casa Grande, squeezed his penis for two to three seconds during horseplay in the pool, according to testimony in court records from civil suits filed against the diocese.
The diocese learned of the incident a few weeks later, when the youth confided in another member of the clergy. The youth, who had gotten to know Stencil over several years, said he felt uncomfortable earlier, too, when the priest placed his hand on the boy’s thigh during confession, according to a statement from the boy that was filed in connection with the lawsuits. Stencil conducted confessions sitting side by side, according to the statement.
Diocesan officials did their own investigation of the pool incident but didn’t notify law enforcement authorities.
Under questioning by diocesan officials, the boy said the pool incident was probably an accident, Allison said in sworn testimony Oct. 31. Allison said he consulted on the matter with diocesan attorney Tom Murphy of Tucson.
“My recollection was that there was an initial discussion, and the feeling at that time, certainly on my part and I believe Tom’s part, (was) that we should make a report,” Allison said in his testimony under questioning by attorneys for plaintiffs in the lawsuits. “But there was something about confusion.”
The boy, now 20, contacted the diocese within a week after a Feb. 17 story in the Arizona Daily Star about the decision to bar Stencil from practicing his ministry. He told diocesan officials he was changing his story; he did not believe the pool incident was an accident.
“When information was provided to the diocese by the minor this year that the touch was not accidental, the diocese immediately reported it,” Allison said Tuesday.
The youth indicated in a statement attached to Allison’s testimony that he hoped reporting the pool incident would not affect his ability to pursue a career as a priest.
The diocese is reviewing how it handled the boy’s initial report.
“In the future, every accusation, allegation or even concern about child abuse will be reported to the authorities,” Allison said Tuesday.
Stencil was barred from practicing his ministry after two incidents involving overnight stays with youths.
In the first, he received a warning for letting the 17-year-old boy spend the night after the pool party in clergy living quarters. Later, when he was working at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church on Tucson’s Northwest Side, he was reprimanded for taking some youths on a trip during which they stayed at a motel.
Stencil took a leave after the reprimand, in fall 2000, and was suspended a few months later, in February 2001.
The diocese in January settled 11 civil suits accusing four local priests of sexually abusing boys in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Experts estimated the settlement as high as $16 million.
Stencil was not one of the priests named in the lawsuits.
The settlement has helped draw attention locally and nationwide to the way the Catholic Church responds to allegations of sexual abuse by clergy. It prompted the formation of a Tucson Diocese Review Committee on Child Abuse Policy and Procedures, which is expected to release a report later this month.