KC Star brings up old accusations against priest
By Albert de Zutter
Catholic Key Editor
KANSAS CITY - A priest who was reinstated eight years ago after a review board expressed "serious reservations" about sexual abuse allegations against him is again in the news as a result of a front-page story in The Kansas City Star.
Although The Star itself reported on Sept. 1, 1994, that parishioners voted 845-17 to allow Father Thomas Ward to return to Nativity of the Blessed Mary Parish in Independence, The Star on April 13 ran a Page One story headlined, "Accused priest retired, has church role."
Father Ward, 69, retired for health reasons in 1996, after serving two more years at the parish following his reinstatement. As a retired priest he has been helping out at various parishes and has been listed as "assisting priest" in the church bulletin of St. Margaret Parish, Lee's Summit. At St. Margaret, Father Ward has been celebrating the Eucharist and helping out with marriage preparation.
Father Patrick J. Rush, vicar general, told The Catholic Key that Father Ward is a priest in good standing. He said he called Father Ward April 13 and told him he could go on helping out as he has been.
The Star's story said the retired priest, "accused of child sexual abuse continues to have a role in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph contrary to assurances that diocesan leaders have repeatedly given parishioners."
The reference is to a letter signed by Bishop Raymond J. Boland to members of the Diocese published March 3 in The Catholic Key. In the letter Bishop Boland explained, as he had before, the diocesan policy in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. He said an independent review board, chaired by "an outstanding Baptist minister," "reviews the handling of every accusation and then advises me."
The board is chaired by Dr. J. Gordon Kingsley, an ordained Baptist minister and former president of William Jewel College, Liberty.
A member of the board and its immediate past chairman is Joe McGuff, retired former editor of The Kansas City Star. "No person on this board is an employee or religious of the diocese," the bishop said.
"I have always followed the advice of this board," Bishop Boland wrote. "Through their assistance I can tell you that we presently have no priest, teacher or youth minister in a parish or school who has ever been accused of any form of child sexual abuse."
While retired priests have no official assignment or appointment to any parish, they are free to help out at parishes upon the invitation of a pastor.
Father Rush said The Star was trying to make the case that since Father Ward was listed as "assisting priest," he had an official parish role sanctioned by the diocese.
McGuff, who chaired the review board when Father Ward's case came up, said in a statement: "After reviewing the case the review board had serious reservations about the accusations against Ward. In addition there had never been any other accusations against him. He already had been suspended for about seven months.
"The question facing the review board was whether to continue the suspension until the case came to trial, which could be a long time, or act on our belief that the charges were unconvincing and recommend to the bishop that he be reinstated. After much discussion we decided to let his parish decide whether they wanted him back.
"In this case the review board functioned somewhat as a jury would. We weighed the charges against Ward and found them unconvincing. As in the case of the late Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago, not every accusation is valid."
At the time of his reinstatement, Father Ward was restricted from ministering to children.
Father Ward's accuser, Nicolas Gray, filed a civil suit 1994 alleging sexual abuse beginning in 1982, when Gray was 14, and continuing for 10 years. Father Ward "strongly and consistently maintained that the charges were not true and that he had not abused anyone," according to James Tierney, who represented the diocese in the civil case. The case was settled out of court in 1999 for $20,000.
In addition, Tierney said, the review board interviewed other people besides the principals and found no evidence of improper behavior on the part of Father Ward, who was ordained a priest in 1962.
The Star's story, while detailing in graphic terms the allegations Gray made in a deposition in the civil case, made minimal references to Father Ward's deposition, stating little beyond the fact that Father Ward "denied the accusations."
Despite the widespread publicity surrounding Father Ward's reinstatement, including a prominent story in The Star, The Star reported that Gray was angry that Father Ward was still working in the diocese. It quoted him as saying, "I had safely assumed that he was no longer performing any duties. I'm furious that he still has an actual right to be a priest."
The story carried a double by-line. The lead writer was Judy L. Thomas, who also wrote a story two years ago contending that priests were dying of AIDS in numbers far greater than the general population. The fact that there were priests dying of AIDS had been widely reported in the Catholic press 13 years earlier.
In the story about Father Ward, the writers said Gray had never spoken publicly about the case, but "agreed to come forward now to help others in the wake of revelations about sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church."
The Star story said Gray's lawsuit continued after Father Ward was reinstated, and said "Ward was dismissed as a defendant in 1997 because the statute of limitations had expired and because of other technicalities, said Robert Wells, Gray's attorney."
"But the courts rejected the diocese's attempts to get the case thrown out," The Star story said.
Tierney said motions to dismiss are automatically filed in any suit.
Contrary to The Star's statements, the trial court dismissed all but one allegation and, on appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court said that while the dismissals were each proper, no appeal was possible because not all of the allegations had been dismissed. The one count the trial court said could be litigated against Father Ward was "intentional infliction of emotional damage."
The Supreme Court also said that a claim of "intentional failure to supervise" against the diocese could be tried.
After the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Aug. 19, 1997, depositions were taken from Gray and Father Ward.
Tierney said that after the depositions, "I was quite confident that we would win the case. However, I advised the diocese that it would cost about $50,000 to litigate. I suggested that a $20,000 settlement made sense."
With the settlement, the plaintiff made a motion to dismiss the case, releasing all claims against the diocese and Father Ward, Tierney said.