Priests react to abuse allegations against long-dead counterpart

Monday, January 7, 2013

They profess the same faith, recite the same prayers and, in many ways, live largely the same sort of lives that he did.

Still, when the Revs. Randy Tochtrop and John Harth learned that Father Walter C. Craig, a long-dead priest who came before them at each of their Southeast Missouri parishes, had been newly accused of abusing a child, they tried to channel some empathy for both accuser and accused.

Because, whatever the truth, both of them deserve it, they said.

"There's no way to know for sure whether there's any veracity to this particular allegation," Harth said. "It's one person's word against someone who cannot speak for themselves. ... Anybody can make an accusation. If it's true, deal with it. If it's not, they've besmirched the reputation of someone who can't defend themselves."

Harth is the pastor at Immaculate Conception in Jackson; Tochtrop at St. Ambrose Parish in Chaffee, Mo. Craig, who was born in 1899, ordained in 1923 and died in 1971, served at both of them, as well as the parish in New Madrid, Mo., which is where the unidentified accuser claims the abuse took place in the mid-1960s.

The Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau told the public in a news release last week, saying that the allegation was "credible," but the church leadership offered no explanation as to why. Both Tochtrop and Harth learned of the allegations and were instructed to place them in bulletins for weekend services.

Tochtrop said most of his parishioners didn't know Craig, who served at St. Ambrose more than 60 years ago, from 1936 to 1948. He understands how serious such allegations are, and both priests said their remarks were not meant to be seen as a defense of the indefensible.

But they have kept open the possibility that Craig, a priest for more than five decades, did not do the things of which he is accused. Both men also know the statistics, that a great many of such allegations are borne out. But not all.

"Just because there's an allegation doesn't mean it's a true allegation," Tochtrop said. "Some of the times, those allegations were false and it turned out that they were just after money or publicity. I'm not saying the things they're saying aren't true. But this is different -- this dead priest can't defend himself."

Harth, a priest for 26 years, remembers when a wave of accusations surfaced in the 1990s. The backlash against priests was palpable, he said. Harth remembers, especially in metropolitan areas, priests would receive uncomfortable glances. Both men pointed out that allegations aren't made just against Catholics; men in their profession receive much more publicity when such allegations are made.

Tochtrop suggests that maybe it's because theirs is the largest Christian denomination in the world.

"The bottom line is we have to live with these occurrences," he said. "I'm just suggesting that there's some empathy for the priest as well as the person that's accusing them, whether it's true or not."

The same thing is true of the accuser, he said.

"If they are making allegations like this that are false, they need our help as well," he said.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

300 S. Hope St., Jackson, Mo.

418 Third St., Chaffee, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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