McAlester priest is accused of improper behavior

Sunday, July 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ A Roman Catholic priest was allowed to remain on the job in Oklahoma in spite of accusations of inappropriate behavior with several boys in the early 1990s, according to a published report.

The Dallas Morning News, in a copyright story in Sunday's editions, reported that the Rev. Kenneth Lewis was sent to a treatment center in 1994 and moved to new parishes before being removed last weekend as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in McAlester.

Bishop Edward Slattery of the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa permitted Lewis to continue his priestly duties in spite of the allegations and a vote by U.S. bishops last month to crack down on abuse.

The diocese's chancellor and communications director, Dr. Henry Harder, said Lewis requested a leave of absence. Harder said the reason for his departure was confidential.

In a news release, Harder said the priest sought a leave for ``personal reasons.'' Parishioners were given no explanation of his departure.

Slattery was in Canada for Pope John Paul II's visit and was unavailable for comment, his office said. Lewis did not respond to requests for comment.

Harder acknowledged that Lewis was the subject of internal investigations in 1994 and again this summer. He said the investigations found ``nothing actionable'' under church law or criminal law and that no report was made to police or child-welfare officials.

Former ministerial co-worker Evelyn McMahon said she told top diocesan officials eight years ago that she had twice found Lewis alone with sixth- and seventh-grade boys, rubbing their backs.

One, she said, was sitting on his lap; the other was lying in bed with him, clothed.

McMahon said she reported that a third boy sometimes went with Father Lewis to the priest's residence after classes let out at the Church of St. Mary's school in Tulsa.

Slattery approved counseling payments for at least one family, to whom he recently wrote and expressed ``sorrow and regret for all the suffering'' that resulted from their son's ``unfortunate encounter'' with Father Lewis.

The diocese used similar language this summer in agreeing to pay for another young man's anxiety medication, its correspondence shows.

That youth said Lewis, shortly after arriving at St. Mary's a decade ago, initiated physical contact with him and several schoolmates.

``He'd come out to recess and wrestle with all the guys,'' the young man recalled. ``He was the guy everybody loved.''

He said the priest became especially close with a few boys, drove them around in his car and gradually found occasions to massage them, in increasingly intimate ways.

The young man said Lewis sometimes put his hand near his genitals but that he could not remember being touched there.

``He said he was molested when he was younger by a Scoutmaster,'' the youth said. ``He said, 'I know how it feels to be hurt. Tell me if I go too far.'''

The boy's parents said they fought for years to get action and decided to speak out now because Slattery refused their requests to deal with the situation forthrightly.

They asked that their names not be published to protect their son, who was in grade school when McMahon found him in bed with Lewis.

The youth said he has had great difficulty forming friendships, isn't comfortable touching or being touched, and became suicidal earlier this year. He has left the church.

McMahon, who has also left the church, said she first alerted church leaders about Lewis almost a decade ago, when she was a young youth minister at the Church of St. Mary and stumbled upon the bedroom back rub.

She asked to talk with Slattery but instead was directed to a meeting with some of his aides.

``Here's this bishop who continually endangered children,'' said McMahon. ``He had the power to take him out, to get these kids out of harm's way, and he didn't.''

In McAlester, youth director Tracy Matthews described Lewis as ``a wonderful priest'' who had worked hard to start a youth program.

Matthews said she had never been told about the allegations against him and didn't believe that his departure had anything to do with them.

Lewis' accusers in Tulsa have raised concerns about whether the diocese is following the spirit of openness called for in the ``Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,'' approved during a historic meeting of Roman Catholic bishops in Dallas in June.

Two parents who have long complained about Lewis said that shortly before the resignation, an aide to Slattery told them that the explanation could be ``personal medical reasons.''

They said they threatened to take their allegations to a prosecutor.

Gov. Frank Keating, who heads a national review board formed by bishops to monitor their compliance with new abuse policies, reacted angrily when told the allegations had not been reported to law enforcement.

``These are precisely the kinds of incidents our national board wants referred to civil authorities,'' said Keating, a former federal prosecutor who is Catholic and grew up in Tulsa.

``This is precisely the kind of person who shouldn't be within 150 yards of a child,'' he said.