Priest who killed himself was accused of child abusing boy He denied allegation, but had agreed to leave next day for mental evaluation

August 30, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

A Baltimore County parish priest who committed suicide Aug. 21 was to have left the next day for psychological evaluation and possible treatment after being confronted with an allegation of child abuse that occurred 10 years ago.

Archbishop William H. Keeler revealed the allegation to a meeting of 500 shocked parishioners in the school auditorium at St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church in Bradshaw yesterday afternoon.

Archbishop Keeler told the parishioners that the Rev. Thomas W. Smith -- who had admitted in 1988 to molesting boys in a series of incidents in the 1960s -- was informed on Aug. 19 that a lawyer representing members of a family at the parish had informed the Archdiocese of Baltimore that Father Smith had inappropriately touched their son a decade ago. The archdiocese could not provide details of the alleged abuse.

Although Father Smith, 68, had denied the most recent allegation, he was placed on administrative leave and agreed to enter a clinic in Connecticut for a psychological evaluation, which is the archdiocese's policy in cases of child abuse allegations, the archbishop said.

Father Smith had been scheduled to leave on Sunday, Aug. 22. But the Saturday before, he shot himself in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun in the living room of the rectory next to the church.

He left a note saying that he was despondent over the death of his mother in December and continued to be upset that he had not been with her when she died.

Archdiocesan officials said they decided to wait until after Father Smith's funeral on Wednesday before informing the parish of the allegation. They met Friday with the parish council, which agreed that the entire parish should be told of the allegation after Sunday Masses.

Archdiocesan officials said that their investigation was cut short by Father Smith's suicide, and they are still trying to determine if abuse took place at the parish.

"At this point, we haven't received any [other] allegations," said Rob Rehg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "But we just want to make sure that if there's somebody out there that this has happened to, we want to hear about it."

Mr. Rehg said that a psychologist addressed parishioners yesterday about talking with their children to learn if they were ever sexually abused. "We don't know if there are any," Mr. Rehg said. "But if there are, they can sometimes be reluctant to talk about it. So we just gave them some pointers on how to talk to them, to get them to open up."

Mr. Rehg said the parishioners' reaction "collectively was one of stunned silence."

Edwin Sofsky, an usher at the church for 20 years, said, "I can't possibly in my wildest dreams think of anything like that, knowing the man as I did. There's just no way."

Mr. Sofsky, as did many parishioners, said he saw Father Smith )) as a pastor devoted to his ministry. "The only word that would describe him is priest," Mr. Sofsky said. "He was a full, complete priest. Everything the Catholic Church values as a priest, he was it."

Archbishop Keeler told parishioners that Father Smith was to have been sent for evaluation because he had previously admitted to sexual misconduct with several boys in the early 1960s at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Overlea, also in eastern Baltimore County. The archdiocese learned of the abuse in September 1988, when a man accused Father Smith of having abused him when he was a youth.

"Father Smith was immediately presented with the allegation and admitted that he had inappropriately touched a number of boys in the early 1960s, but Father Smith assured us no incidents had occurred in more than 20 years," Archbishop Keeler said in a statement he read to parishioners.

"After Father Smith's [1988] admission, the archdiocese required Father Smith to be evaluated by a psychiatrist and forbade him to engage in any further work with youth," he said.

"The allegations presented to Father Smith on Aug. 19, 1993, relate to alleged conduct that occurred prior to September 1988, when the archdiocese first learned of Father Smith's improper conduct in the 1960s."

An archdiocesan spokesman said last night that parishioners were not told until yesterday about the 1960s incidents involving Father Smith.

In 1988, Father Smith's associate pastor, the Rev. Marion F. Helowicz, was convicted of molesting a 16-year-old boy who had gone to him at St. Stephen for counseling. The abuse resulted in a lawsuit, which the Baltimore archdiocese settled for an undisclosed sum in 1990.

Father Smith told a reporter in 1990 that he had no knowledge of the abuse by Father Helowicz, which took place over a period of 19 months in 1983 and 1984.

Mr. Rehg said that during the evaluation in Connecticut, Father Smith would have been confronted with the allegations and, if he admitted the actions, treatment would have begun.

"If he denied it there, they would keep him for a while, and ask him again," he said. "At the same time, we would be working here trying to get some corroborating evidence, which we would present to him," Mr. Rehg said.

"Ordinarily, there is a denial stage. And ordinarily, if they've done it. they will admit it and we can begin treatment."

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