Charge shocks priest's neighbors

Lansdowne residents say pastor stripped of powers is an activist

April 05, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Allegations of prostitution and drug use made against a Catholic priest have rocked Lansdowne, the small blue-collar Baltimore County community where he was viewed as an activist champion.

Whether it was fighting to preserve a church day care center, trying to keep a county library branch from closing or making sure children received vaccinations, the Rev. Steven P. Girard regularly stood at the forefront of the battles in Lansdowne, neighborhood leaders said yesterday.

And in a community that abuts the city line and has had its share of rising social ills, Girard's advocacy was welcomed.

"He pretty much was the central, unifying force for that community," said Nick D'Alesandro, community liaison for the county Department of Social Services. "He was a dogged advocate for people in need."

Girard, 54, is accused of filing a false carjacking report to cover up a night with a male prostitute. The pastor of the 2,000-member St. Clement I Catholic Church in Lansdowne has been missing since last week and has been relieved of his priestly faculties by the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Lansdowne neighborhood leaders were stunned yesterday by the allegations.

"I can't tell you how much of a shock it has been," said Moses Rodriguez, president of the Greater Baltimore/Highlands Improvement Association. "I'm still a little numb."

Rodriguez has worked with Girard, known as "Father Steve," during the past decade on community projects ranging from getting lights and a scoreboard on the Lansdowne Middle School field to having a proposed $3 million boat ramp approved for Southwest Area Park, he said.

`A positive force'

"He was just a positive force in the community," Rodriguez said. "The man just had a caring way about him and he has done some marvelous things. I'm at a loss for words."

Neighborhood leaders said yesterday that they will be at a loss without Girard's leadership. Theresa Lowry has worked beside Girard for the past 10 years on the group he started, the Southwest Leadership Team.

As Lansdowne has seen a rise in the number of needy residents -- evident in the larger amount of Section 8 housing -- Girard has responded with everything from helping people pay their rent to taking the homeless into the rectory, she said.

"I could cite you 100,000 things, the list goes on," she said. "The thing that sickens me is that we're only getting the bad side. They've taken the word of someone who doesn't have much character and he's slaughtering a man who is the pillar of the community."

Jacob "Jake" Miller, president of the Lansdowne Improvement Association, agreed.

"I've never seen a priest or anybody work as hard for the community as he has," said Miller, a 60-year Lansdowne resident. "I've seen him give out the last penny he has in his pocket."

Allegations of drug use

According to court documents, Girard said he went to Mount Vernon on March 24 and picked up Danny Earl Conyers. The priest told police he took Conyers to the Terrace Motel in the 6200 block of Washington Blvd. in Elkridge because "he wanted to have sex."

Conyers said that the two went to an open-air drug market, where Girard gave him $60 to buy crack cocaine, according to court documents. The two then went to the St. Clement rectory at Second Avenue and Washington Street, where they smoked the crack and drank alcohol, Conyers said. Girard later gave Conyers more money to buy crack, Conyers said.

Girard faces a misdemeanor charge that carries up to a $500 fine and six months in jail.

At Sipe's Market, around the corner from St. Clement, customers were talking yesterday about the incident as they picked up groceries. Shop owner Wayne Sipe said Girard regularly visited the store for lunch meat.

"There are a lot of people talking and they're saying the same thing I'm saying: They can't believe it," Sipe said.

Lansdowne Middle School Principal Thomas DeHart served on the leadership team with Girard, praising him as a relentless community advocate.

"It's hit me like a ton of bricks," DeHart said. "I'm waiting for someone to say April Fools'."

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