Marblehead - Marblehead resident Frank Huntress, a retired priest, voluntarily resigned from the priesthood earlier this month after two separate child-abuse allegations 20 years apart became known to the local diocese.
Huntress, 77, who in his retirement had remained active at his local Episcopal branch of St. Michael's in Marblehead as well as the Church of the Holy Name in Swampscott, had been arrested in 1994 and charged with sexual abuse of a child in England, where he was a member of the clergy at St. Matthew's in Lincolnshire, England.
The case never went to trial, perhaps at the request of the child's family, suggested Rev. Canon Mally Lloyd of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. But the incident was reported to British police, leading to his arrest. Huntress then retired in 1995.
The sexual-abuse complaint, however, never crossed the Atlantic, and Huntress' record made no mention of this former charge as he returned to work in 1995, serving at All Saints in Dorchester, according to officials at the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.
This past October, another alleged victim emerged, however, this time in the U.S. The accuser made claims dating to 1974, 20 years prior to Huntress' arrest in England.
In 1974, Huntress was serving at the Grace Church, Manchester, N.H., but officials would not confirm where the alleged incident occurred. In 1975, however, Huntress returned to England, where he had worked from 1965 to 1971.
"In investigating [the 1974 U.S.] accusation, the bishop's office went back through the churches where [Huntress] served and, in the process of the investigation, they had discovered that he had been arrested in 1994 in England," Lloyd explained. "From the complaints of the '74 abuse and the police reports, [Bishop Thomas Shaw] became convinced that there was pretty overwhelming evidence that sexual misconduct with minors had occurred."
Lloyd added that the church's investigation is a "very formal process, dictated by Canon law."
After the Diocese conducted its in-depth investigation, which included a follow-up with British police and the church in England about the 1994 case, Bishop Shaw gave Huntress the option of either renouncing his order, being deposed (removed from his position) or going before a trial court within the Diocese, where a further investigation would be made. People of the Diocese elect the trial court, according to Lloyd.
"It's a due process, open to the public," she said.
Instead of facing a church trial, Huntress decided to renounce his order, and on Feb. 4 a formal letter of his resignation was sent out to the heads of the Diocese, as well as to all Episcopal congregations in Eastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod.
Huntress denies any wrongdoing, however.
"All the allegations are absolutely false and untrue and they have been turned over for legal action," Huntress said Tuesday morning, March 1, adding that he has been speaking with a lawyer and would keep the Reporter informed of any new developments in the coming weeks.
Clergy at both the Swampscott and Marblehead churches would not comment on the situation and referred all the Reporter's questions to the Diocese.
One member of St. Michael's Church, Tom Hamond, who serves as a lay minister, said that Huntress has always been kind, and helped with family issues when Hamond's uncle was ill.
"I only know him in the sense of the church. I don't know any of the other particulars," he said. "He was very helpful with my uncle.… Frank went with me to the hospital and visited him several times. And when my uncle passed away, he did the service."
Statute of limitations prevents formal charge
With 36 years having passed between the alleged incident and when the accuser came forward, U.S. authorities could not pursue charges against Huntress, as the statute of limitations had lapsed. But the Diocese still reported the incident to the Middlesex District Attorney's Office, according to Lloyd.
In the church, however, there is no statute of limitations, which is why Bishop Shaw moved forward with the Diocese's investigation.
"The state and county courts can't put him in jail. There's nothing that can be done from a criminal point of view," Lloyd said. "The biggest punishment for a priest [within the church] is to depose."
She added, "The goal is to make our parishes safe for children, young adults and grownups, so we take it very seriously. And we act as soon as we can once charges are brought."
As far as Diocese officials know, police did not investigate the 1974 charge, and last October is the first time the alleged abuse was reported. Lloyd added that she does not know whether the victim gave a reason for withholding this information for so long.
"You have to respect the victim's process," she said. "We try to balance all their rights and needs."
The same is true when it comes to the members of the congregation.
A Pastoral Response Team, made up of members who are trained to help ease the impact of trauma like abuse, was sent to the Swampscott and Marblehead churches.
"We know from past experiences, in all sorts of trauma, truth telling and allowing people to express their feelings is the way healing happens," Lloyd said, adding that the team visits the churches as many times as necessary. "The reactions to this kind of truth telling range from anger and disbelief to relief that this is being handled out in the open, and confidence that the Diocese is acting quickly."
She added, "There's no kind of hand book as to how this is handled or how people feel. It's not a perfect system. We're constantly trying to improve it and improve communications."
She also said that sexual misconduct is certainly not an "epidemic" within the Episcopal Church. Just nine cases have been reported in the last 21 years, only three of which alleged child abuse. The other six did not necessarily deal with sexual misconduct as defined by the state, but rather as defined by the church. Priests, for example, are not to have sexual relations with any member of their congregation or staff.
"The idea is to be able to come and worship and have your spiritual life enhanced without being afraid of someone crossing boundaries with you," she explained.
Opening up dialogue
Instead of shunning what might be deemed bad publicity for the Episcopal Church, Lloyd said that she instead appreciates the opportunity to have open dialogue about sexual abuse.
"Every time something like this happens, it opens up the door for people to come forward, in our experience," Lloyd added. "But, again, we don't see it as an epidemic [within our church]."
To help keep awareness at the forefront, clergy and laypeople who work with children are required to take "Safe Church Training" every two to three years, she noted. The church also encourages Criminal Offender Record Information background checks for all staff.