WASHINGTON – A Washington, D.C., priest was removed from his pastoral duties after allegations arose last week that he engaged in sexual misconduct with two teen-aged girls two decades ago.
The women, who are sisters, charged that Monsignor Russell Dillard, 52, engaged in “inappropriate touching and kissing” with them from 1979 to 1984, when they were in eighth grade and high school, said a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington.
Dillard “has acknowledged relationships did occur, including the touching and the kissing,” when he was a newly ordained associate pastor at St. Anthony’s in Northeast Washington. Spokeswoman Jennifer Reed said he currently is undergoing psychological evaluation “to get a full sense of the situation.”
On Monday, the archdiocese indefinitely removed Dillard as pastor of St. Augustine’s parish in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. He was sent to an undisclosed residential facility, and allegations were reported to the Metropolitan Police Department.
The archdiocese had planned to let Dillard disclose the allegations to his parishioners at Mass on Sunday, but Cardinal Theodore McCarrick went public Thursday as the news started to circulate at St. Augustine’s, which serves 4,000 Catholics.
“This has been an extraordinarily difficult week,” said McCarrick, leader of the Washington Archdiocese, which serves 100 parishes in Maryland. “I can think of almost nothing more painful than to learn a priest may have violated the trust placed in him in this way. Our children must be our priority.”
Staff at St. Augustine’s, where Dillard has been pastor since 1990, reacted to the allegations with consternation.
“We’re shocked and dismayed, and we support him 100 percent,” said parish manager Linda Wallace. “I think the people here are going to be immensely supportive of him. He’s been nothing but an exemplary priest. If you can find someone who’s more exemplary, I’d like to meet him.”
Wallace said the St. Augustine’s rectory staff was scheduled to meet at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, presumably to hear about the allegations from Dillard himself. But the pastor did not show up for the meeting.
“Someone came by in a car and took him away before 3:30,” Wallace said.
It is not clear when or if he will return, she said.
The pastor at St. Martin of Tours in Northwest Washington, where Dillard was pastor from 1987 to 1990, said he was “just appalled” to learn of the allegations.
The Rev. Michael Kelley and Dillard attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in the late 1960s. Last month, the two celebrated St. Martin’s 100th anniversary together.
“I’ve known Russell for years, and I’ve always seen him to be a good priest,” Kelley said. “People here hold him in great regard. It’s hard to know where the truth really lies in all of this. I’m still in shock, quite honestly.”
Staff at St. Anthony’s would not comment Thursday.
The allegations against Dillard are the latest in a recent string of sexual misconduct claims against priests. In late February, a former Boston priest was sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison for molesting more than 100 boys. And in December, a Baltimore priest was arrested for possession of child pornography, a case that was linked this week to an international child pornography ring.
The Washington Archdiocese has touted its policy against sexual misconduct, calling it one of the nation’s toughest. The diocese does FBI background checks of all priests, lay workers and volunteers. It also checks on veteran priests who are transferred to Washington and on those who want to minister here while visiting.
McCarrick reiterated and defended the policy last week in his column in The Catholic Standard. In his essay this week, McCarrick suggested that the media have used statistics to inflate the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the priesthood.
“I hate to write about this or even to talk about it,” McCarrick wrote, “but I want to put these statistics into context and to assure you as the servant of this Church of Washington that your love and respect for our priests is not misplaced.”
In the past decade, the Washington Archdiocese has handed over six priests who were accused of sexual misconduct; five of whom were found guilty, a spokeswoman said. The archdiocese also turned over the names of a half-dozen priests — none of whom were still actively serving — who church leaders identified in decades-old files as possible sex offenders.