Wayne Pittman wasn’t surprised that the priest who officiated at Pittman’s wedding in Greenwood more than 50 years ago is one of those accused of sexual abuse with minors.
That’s because some years later, after the priest, James Kircher, had been reassigned to a parish in Indianola, Pittman heard he had been caught in an inappropriate relationship with a boy.
“I remember it was a big scandal,” Pittman said Tuesday, hours after the Diocese of Jackson released the names of 37 clergy members who it says have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. The cases, according to diocesan officials, date from 1939 to 1998, and none of the accused are still in active ministry.
Kircher, one other diocesan priest and two Franciscan brothers on the list served at one or the other of Greenwood’s two Catholic parishes, Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Francis of Assisi. In at least two of the cases, the abuse allegedly occurred during their time in Greenwood.
The accused include:
• Kircher. He was the associate pastor at IHM from 1966 to 1968. He is alleged to have abused minors at multiple other churches where he subsequently served from 1978 to 1982. He was removed from the ministry in 1987 and died in 2007.
• Kevin Reid. He served as associate pastor at IHM from 1962 to 1963. His time in Greenwood, according to diocesan officials, was sandwiched around two separate stints at a church in Bay St. Louis, where the reported abuse allegedly occurred from 1961 to 1966. Reid left the ministry in 1976 and is now deceased.
• Paul West, a brother in the Franciscan religious order. West’s period of alleged abuse covers the five years he was at St. Francis, from 1993 to 1998. He was the principal of the church’s elementary school, and its playground was named for him during that time. He was removed from ministry after the abuse was initially reported in 1998 and left the order a few years later. His current whereabouts are unknown.
• Don Lucas, also a Franciscan brother. His alleged abuse at St. Francis occurred in 1998. The following year, he was found dead in a room at the rear of the church, the victim of an apparent suicide.
Jesse Henderson, a member of St. Francis since converting to Catholicism in the 1970s, said he was not surprised about West, whose alleged misconduct was first publicized by the diocese last July. “He was a good principal, but he just wasn’t a nice person,” Henderson said.
The announcement about Lucas, however, was not expected, despite his troubling death, said Henderson.
“He was a very loving person, very warm person. I had no idea that he may have been molesting young people.”
The Rev. Joachim Studwell, who has been pastor of St. Francis for the past year and a half, said he knows of only one allegation of sexual abuse against Lucas, and it was made following last year’s revelation about West. Studwell said there were three separate allegations about the former principal. In all four cases, the alleged victims were young males, he said.
Studwell said he did not know West, but he had become acquainted with Lucas at two different retreat houses in Wisconsin, where Lucas primarily did the cooking. Lucas later spent time in Chicago, working in a multi-ethnic parish and ministering to AIDS victims, before coming to St. Francis in the mid-1990s.
Studwell said the revelations of sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy have left him with a “profound sadness, especially for the alleged victims.”
He said he has no explanation for members of the clergy violating one of the most central tenets of Christianity — the safeguarding of children.
“How could a person do this? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” he said.
He said that while the diocese’s greater transparency is necessary, there is still much work to do to regain the people’s trust and lessen their feelings of betrayal.
“How do we help to bring about healing? How can we do that?” Studwell asks himself.
His answer: “Trying to discover ways that we can listen to people and listen to their outrage and listen to their disappointments and their feelings of betrayal.”
The Rev. Jose de Jesus Sanchez, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary, came into the Jackson Diocese only a decade ago as a seminarian and did not know the accused.
Still, he said, he and other priests now fall under a cloud of mistrust created by the moral failings of others. It is a burden that, while unwelcome, must be accepted in faith, he said.
“As Jesus says, ‘If you want to be my disciples, pick up your cross and follow me.’ These are the crosses we are picking up now. Maybe some of us didn’t commit those sins, but some of our brothers did commit those sins. Because of their mistakes, because of their sins, we need to pick up those crosses ourselves.”
Wayne Pittman, also a convert to Catholicism, said his commitment to his religion has not been weakened by the scandal.
“I hate it for the church. I hate it for the victims. I hate it for the clergy — the wonderful, wonderful, super wonderful men that I have come to know,” he said, rattling off a handful of names of priests who have served Immaculate Heart of Mary.
A retired police detective, Pittman said that any anger he has is directed toward the Catholic bishops and how they handled the allegations when they first surfaced.
“I just really am miffed about the bishops hiding this, sweeping it under the rug, reassigning these people, these predator priests.”
Henderson, who echoes those sentiments about past coverups within the church, said the scandal has created a barrier between the religious and the congregations they serve.
“It doesn’t let you be as close as a church family because you don’t ever know,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that shakes your faith.”
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original version of this article had an incorrect date for the time span covered by the allegations of sexual abuse.