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The Episcopal Church knew plenty about serial child sex abuser

The Episcopal Church knew plenty about serial child sex abuser

The District Attorney of Haywood County and one of Howard White’s victims say The Episcopal Church knew enough to stop the serial child sex abuser decades ago, but did nothing until only recently. White was deposed in 2015 when charges dating to the 1970s came to light. Last week White, 79, pled guilty to serial child sexual abuse and was sentenced to 12 years. He had recently served time in Massachusetts.

What has just been revealed, as reported by The Mountaineer, a Western North Carolina paper:

  1. Quoting an interview with District Attorney Ashley Welch: “There was a letter from years ago,” she said. “Without looking at the file, I believe it was back to the 70s, from an Episcopal Church he was at during the time where there was inappropriate contact with a boy. It didn’t say specifics but it did say it was sexual in nature. They sent him to a doctor, then removed him and sent a letter recommending he was sent away from children to get some help. Then he was allowed to continue working within the Episcopal church.”
  2. Quoting victim Meg Yarbrough: “I have never understood how the Vestry of Grace Church in 1996 refused to fire Howdy after the West Virginia case,” she said. “Bishop [Robert Hodges] Johnson wanted to, but in the Episcopal Church, bishops do not have the same power they do in the Catholic Church … It weighs heavily on me that I didn’t go to Bishop Johnson then.”

What we knew about Howard White and The Episcopal Church’s knowledge of him:

  1. In the 1970s he sexually abused several male students of St. George’s Episcopal School and was quietly dismissed by the headmaster. St. George’s was not affiliated with The Episcopal Church or the Diocese of Rhode Island, but it is an Episcopal School and the leadership at the time knew of Howard White’s behavior.
  2. In civil court in the 1990s, Howard White and the Diocese of West Virginia were sued by a man who said that as a boy White sexually abused him while White was a priest in the Diocese of West Virginia in the 1960s. The evidence presented in court was compelling, but the statute of limitations had run out. Thus, at least as early as the 1990s the Diocese of West Virginia at the time knew of Howard White and at least one alleged victim.

It is not clear whether the Diocese of West Virginia supplied the letter to Welch. The revelation of the 1970s letter tells us that, in the case of the Diocese of West Virginia, the diocese had contemporaneous knowledge of child sex abuse by Howard White. Apparently, the civil authorities were not informed. Nor were St. Paul’s or St. George’s — otherwise, why would they employ him? Yet diocesan journals of those years tell us Howard White was among the priests canonically resident in West Virginia, and where he was employed. Specifically,

From Annual Journals of the Diocese of West Virginia

Postulant 1964

Candidate for Holy Orders, May 1, 1965
Candidate for Holy Orders, May 1, 1966
Assistant, Trinity Church, Martinsburg, 1966
Resigned as curate at Trinity Church, Martinsburg, September 1, 1967.
Non-parochial clergy, New Hampshire, 1968
Non-parochial clergy, St. Paul’s School, New Hampshire, 1969
Letter Dismissory, Diocese of New Hampshire, February 4, 1970

In short, the Diocese of West Virginia appears to have known contemporaneously, and later relearned (around the time of the 1990s trial and later in 2015), that Howard White had a history of child abuse in its diocese and continued to work with children thereafter. Bishops of West Virginia at these times: the Rt. Rev. Wilburn Campell (1955-1976), the Rt. Rev. John H. Smith (1989-1999), the Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer (2001-).

In 2016, Klusmeyer wrote an email to the Providence Journal. The Journal reported,

Klusmeyer said after reading about White (and the St. George’s sex-abuse scandal) in the New York Times, “I was made aware that he was ordained here in West Virginia. And I pulled his file.” Klusmeyer also said he has received phone calls “from other church people” regarding White, and said, “I am also aware of the lawsuit that you named.”

Recently, a former male student at St. Paul’s in the 1970s came forward alleging he was sexually abused by White. Questions arose about whether White’s short tenure as priest in West Virginia and chaplain at St. Paul’s were, like St. George’s, the result of dismissal based on the sex abuse of children.

From the report in The Mountaineer we now know that in the 1990s the Diocese of Western North Carolina and the vestry Grace Church in Mountains, where White was rector, knew of the 1990s civil trial in West Virginia. Unknown is how they came to know. Perhaps the Diocese of West Virginia informed them. Perhaps they knew because they were informed by the victim’s lawyer.

Yet there were no consequences for White. He remained rector at Grace Church in the Mountains and, evidently, was not disciplined by Bishop Johnson. Subsequently, more children were his sex abuse victims.

During this time White was also a guardian ad litem in North Carolina — a court-appointed guardian. In that role, he also victimized children sexually. It is not known whether those in The Episcopal Church with knowledge of the West Virginia allegation against White shared their knowledge with North Carolina authorities at any level.

The Episcopal Church’s admission of complicity is found within this ENS report:

“I’m relieved that the survivors of Howard White’s crimes are being given some measure of justice in this sentencing,” Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely of Rhode Island wrote in a statement to Episcopal News Service. “I’m sorry that it has taken this long for it to arrive, and I’m sorry that the church did not live up to its responsibility over the years.”

It is not known whether others in the church have gone as far as Bishop Kniseley in publically saying the church has responsibility.

For more see some of our previous reporting.

A postscript. One of White’s attorneys says White is contrite. But that assertion doesn’t add up. The Citizen Times reported on October 22nd:

One of his attorney’s, Sean Devereux, of Asheville, told the Citizen Times in an email that the plea and sentencing were “an attempt at restorative justice” that both the defense and the prosecution hope will “bring some measure of peace to all involved.”

Devereux said that the conduct leading to White’s convictions occurred 34-35 years ago, “during a period of time when he was drinking heavily” and that White is now sober. “Dr. White’s abuse of alcohol three decades ago is no excuse,” Devereux said. “He spoke at his sentencing yesterday, telling the court and his victims, ‘I can only hope that 25 years of sobriety is a measure of atonement for the harm that I have done in the lives of others, especially those who looked to me for spiritual guidance.'”

Most of the crimes White pleaded guilty to Oct. 21 occurred in 1984 and 1985, but two of the indecent liberties charges took place in 2004, [District Attorney] Welch said.

Further,

Devereux acknowledged “a long history on the internet of allegations” against his client, but noted that there have not been charges brought anywhere besides Massachusetts and North Carolina.

But Welch tells us why:

“It’s not usual that you see charges this old come about,” she added. “We are lucky because (North Carolina does) not have a statute of limitations on felonies.” Some of the other states where White has faced accusations do have statutes that prevent legal action after a certain amount of time has passed.

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christopher r seitz
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christopher r seitz

Odd to read the clipping. My dad and family moved from Christ Church Fairmont WVA in 1967. The diocesan camp was extremely popular and the Bishop had clergy present throughout the summer months for a bit of R/R, and often before that they had been camp counselors. So growing up we got to know the whole diocese and its clergy. These are positive memories of a very different time in our culture. I remember the (now known) abuser as a big, cheerful, extroverted camp counselor with a funny nickname. Sobering to realize how terribly wrong a person's path can unfold. We moved to WNC and there were known abusing clergy in that diocese. I did not know White headed in that direction as well.

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Fred Loving
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Fred Loving

As a sexual abuse victim myself, I am shocked. We need to learn from this so it does not happen again.

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Eric Bonetti
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That is, all too often, the modus operandi. Don’t get too involved, lest you become liable.

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