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Policy called for priest's suspension

May 2, 2002

Jeannine F. Hunter, Knoxville News-Sentinel staff writer   

Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville leaders said they followed a diocesan policy regarding sexual misconduct when they learned of allegations against a Lenoir City priest.

Church officials put Father Stephen Charles LaPrad on administrative leave and offered their cooperation to local law enforcement.

LaPrad, former pastor of Lenoir City's St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, was indicted on a sexual battery charge involving a young man at a Knoxville health club.

The alleged incident did not happen on church property nor did it involve a parishioner, but after Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz spoke with LaPrad shortly before Thanksgiving, he composed a letter to the priest placing him on administrative leave from his parish duties.

While Kurtz did not disclose the details of what he and LaPrad discussed, Kurtz said LaPrad told him "the legal authorities had already been informed."

"I would have informed them had they not known," Kurtz said Wednesday, echoing a condition of the Knoxville diocesan policy addressing such matters. "We need to rely on the proper legal authorities, and from the very beginning, we have cooperated fully with them.

"My first action was to protect our faithful, and I placed him on administrative leave of his pastoral duties, and he was removed from the parish."

Administrative leave differs from transferring a priest to another diocese. LaPrad, who remained on the payroll until April, when he officially resigned as pastor, is not serving the public.

Reassigning priests accused of sexual misconduct or abuse has raised the ire of critics nationwide, who question how the Catholic Church has handled allegations involving minors.

Father Vann Johnston said that between November and April, LaPrad did not live on church property or function in any capacity as a priest anywhere in the diocese, which oversees Catholic churches in East Tennessee.

On Wednesday, Kurtz drafted a letter to be distributed to priests throughout the 36-county diocese that stretches from the Cumberland Plateau to the North Carolina border.

"It was important for our faithful to be assured that as the matter was being investigated by local authorities, he was relieved of his pastoral duties," Kurtz said at the chancery in West Knoxville.

In the letter, Kurtz wrote that LaPrad resigned in April so he can "give his undivided attention to the accusation against him."

The Diocese of Knoxville Policy and Procedure Relating to Sexual Misconduct outlines the way the church will handle church employees who are accused of engaging in sexual misconduct of any sort in the course of his or her duties.

"This matter is in the hands of public authorities, as it should be, and we intend to cooperate fully," Kurtz wrote. "We encourage all to do the same."

A grand jury returning an indictment is public record. But until it was returned, local Catholic officials said they could not disclose knowledge of an alleged incident or comment about it to protect any potential victims from adverse publicity, to allow for a fair hearing for the accused and to avoid disrupting the criminal investigation.

Members of the Lenoir City parish were told LaPrad was placed on leave for personal issues that were unrelated to his duties to the parish. Between November and April, other priests were temporarily assigned to the parish until a permanent leader was named.

St. Thomas was LaPrad's first pastorate. Ordained about 62 years ago, LaPrad also worked at St. Mary's in Johnson City but not as its pastor.

The diocese's policy and procedure regarding sexual misconduct, promulgated by the diocese's founding bishop, the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell on Nov. 20, 1998, applies to all clerics, employees, ministers, independent contractors and regular volunteers of diocese, its parishes and service organizations.

In March, O'Connell resigned as bishop of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla., after admitting to sexual misconduct with a former teenage seminary student.

Kurtz said Catholic officials never heard a complaint from an alleged victim in the case involving LaPrad.

Kurtz and Johnston also said there were no attempts by church officials to try to dissuade law enforcement from pursuing an investigation. And there hasn't been talk of money or paying a settlement because none has been requested.

To date, the diocese has not had an incident where it has had to pay a settlement, Johnston said.

"We recognize that there are people who are professionals and are skilled in investigating these types of matters," Johnston said. "We rely upon an investigation, and it's not our role to influence the outcome. ... We let them do their job."