Priest On Leave While Diocese Investigates Claim

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The Catholic bishop for eastern North Carolina temporarily suspended a priest at a church after a former seminarian reported a homosexual advance from 26 years ago in Ohio.

The victim said he has had years of therapy because of what happened.

The accused priest is the Rev. Thomas Watkins, 61, of St. Eugene Catholic Church in Wendell. He denied the allegations through a church spokesman but could not be reached for comment.

Raleigh Catholic Diocese Bishop F. Joseph Gossman's advisory board, which reviews allegations of sexual misconduct, viewed allegations raised last month by Richard Winterich, 45, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as credible, according to a statement released by the diocese Wednesday.

The board also took into account three other allegations involving Watkins and adults. It was unclear whether those took place in the Raleigh diocese.

Watkins is the third priest Gossman has removed from duties in the past two weeks as sexual abuse allegations have surfaced in the wake of an international scandal over sexual misconduct among the clergy. Two priests affiliated with the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte also have been suspended.

Winterich said Watkins betrayed his trust and shattered his self-esteem, leading to years of therapy for depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.

When he and Watkins met, Watkins was a priest in the Marianist religious order and teacher at Cathedral Latin High School in Cleveland, where Winterich was a student. Watkins helped Winterich form a Bible study group, and over time the two became friends.

In 1976, after graduating from high school, Winterich enrolled at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.

Winterich, who was 18, said he continued to see Watkins, who helped him with his schoolwork and became his confidant and confessor. On at least two occasions, Winterich said, Watkins came to his dorm room with a bottle of wine.

The second time, Watkins told him he loved him and asked whether he could kiss him, Winterich said. Winterich said he expected a kiss on the cheek, but Watkins kissed him on the lips and then suggested sexual contact.

At that point, Winterich said, he got up, threw a book at Watkins and ordered him to leave.

"For three years it seemed all he was doing was trying to seduce me," said Winterich, who dropped out of the seminary and lives in a halfway house in Fort Lauderdale. "I've suffered from feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem. I haven't been able to stay in a job. I've attempted suicide. It's caused me a lot of grief."

Winterich has hired a lawyer who has been communicating with the diocese.

Watkins was ordained as a priest in 1963. In 1990, he applied to become a priest in the Raleigh diocese. Since then, he has served at Our Lady of Lourdes in Raleigh, St. Michael's in Cary and St. Francis de Sales in Lumberton.

In 1996, Watkins left the Marianist order and became a diocesan priest.

Parishioners at St. Eugene, a church of 1,200 members, were stunned at the allegations. Watkins worked hard to welcome Hispanics, develop an adult religious education program and help the church pull together as a community, congregation members said.

"I've always felt he was a good priest and particularly fitted to the Hispanic ministry of the church and helping those folks who were economically disadvantaged," said parishioner Joe Howell.

Charlotte Catholic Bishop William Curlin has removed one priest in Greensboro. Another priest, affiliated with the Diocese of Charlotte but working in Florida, was placed on administrative leave last week pending the outcome of a new investigation into a 1999 claim of sexual misconduct involving a minor.

In the other two Raleigh cases, priests were permanently removed amid allegations of abusing minors years ago. Unlike those cases, Watkins' removal is temporary, and the allegations do not involve sexual contact with minors.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)