Confessions of a Fallen Priest

The boys in the parish trusted him. He violated that trust. Now, haunted by his past, he tells his story

Newsweek/April 1, 2002
By David France

It has been 16 years since father Neil Conway secluded himself in an untidy cabin on an isolated tract of farmland halfway between Cleveland and Akron, with no company other than a cat and a dog and an army of demons from his past. He is unbearably aware of how repugnant he is to others. Neil Conway knows he deserves their scorn.

Beneath his rumpled clothing and nervous laugh, he exemplifies what Pope John Paul II last week called mysterium iniquitatis, one of the gravest forms of evil: a priest who abuses children. "I committed an abomination," he says. "I'm sitting here on the dunghill of my own shame and guilt."

Between 1968 and 1985, wielding good looks, charisma and the cachet that comes with being a popular parish priest, Conway lured a succession of eight teenage boys into his sexual traps. He stopped only when a nun found one of them in his bed, he says. Every day since has been a battle to redeem his soul. "I was a predator. I claim full responsibility. Whatever damage I've done to these men can't be undone by me now, but I am deeply regretful for what I did. How do you make up for something as awful as child abuse?"

'Come Out in the Open With Me'

The 65-year-old priest has settled on a course of intense candor. He has tracked down his victims, and apologized. Five have forgiven him, he reports; the other three have not. Two have sued. But Conway believes there is a healing power in confession, not just for himself and his victims, but for the Roman Catholic Church, which is engulfed in its worst scandal in modern times. One day he hopes to start a movement of abusive priests who will speak out about their sins in an effort to stop others. He began the process two weeks ago by giving an interview to his local paper. "I am challenging these men to come out in the open with me," he says. "I want to say, 'Let the discussion begin'."

So far, it is a movement of one. Most church leaders have clung to a policy of secrecy, obfuscation, or defensiveness. Everywhere the scandal has surfaced, most recently engulfing the New York cardinal and the bishop of Brooklyn, officials have been accused of dismissing parents' complaints and routinely shuffling predator priests from parish to parish. On Friday, one assault victim filed a federal RICO suit claiming the entire American Catholic hierarchy is involved in a conspiracy. "There's been a history of cover-up," says Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, who is investigating dozens of priests in Maine. "We have to be aggressive if we want to get to the truth."

Since this crisis exploded in January, accusations against nearly 200 priests have surfaced in 13 states and Washington, D.C. Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer who has reviewed court filings nationwide, estimates that 1,400 or more priests have been sued in recent years. Yet very few have offered any show of remorse. In this environment, Father Conway's public confessions, however disturbing, are instructive, for they offer a rare glimpse into the troubled mind of a man consumed with an obsession for teenage boys.

Vowing Celibacy at 27

Neil Conway grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the 12th child in a prominent Irish-Catholic family. Convinced he had a profound connection with God, he settled on a vocation in the priesthood when he was just 14. He knew that his father, whom he described as a "grand, ghostly figure" throughout his childhood, would be pleased. In 1963, at the age of 27, Conway took his vow of celibacy. On the day he celebrated his first mass, his father and all his brothers attended in tails.

First at St. Rose and later at St. Aloysius, he was a passionate - even radical - ecclesiastic. "Neil got involved in the part of Catholicism that was interested in working with the disadvantaged," says longtime friend Paul Smetko, a New York City foster-care counselor. But Conway began drinking heavily after his father's death in 1965. At the same time, he started assuming fatherly roles with young male parishioners, with whom he frequently talked and wrestled. One Sunday, grappling with a 14-year-old on the parish house floor, Conway found himself overcome with lust, despite, or because of, the boy's age.

The child fit the typical profile of youths abused by priests. Four out of five victims are boys, whereas among the general population girls are more likely to be victims by a wide margin, according to Dr. Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former Benedictine monk who has written extensively on clergy abuse. Despite the "pedophile priest" headlines, the abuse almost always involves kids in their teens, not young children. Like Conway's victim, they often come from chaotic homes.

Conway ingratiated himself easily over the next two years. He helped the boy with expenses and took him on weekend ski vacations. On one such trip, late at night as the two lay in a narrow bed, Conway fondled the boy. The boy did not budge. "I convinced myself that he never woke up at all. I never said anything about it. He never said anything about it." The groping was repeated twice more on subsequent trips over the next six months, always at night after Conway believed the boy had fallen asleep.

Inappropriate Actions

Still, Conway convinced himself he was involved in an intense friendship. So extreme was his denial that he claims it never occurred to him that his actions were inappropriate, much less illegal. He only remembers feeling the most profound sort of love. That is common, says Sipe, who has treated perpetrators in the clergy. "The real resistance to treatment for people with this condition is their belief they're not hurting the kids," he says. "They tell themselves, 'I love them' or 'I'm helping them because they don't have a father or they're poor.' I think in a way they kind of fall in love without knowing what the hell love is like." On this point, Conway agrees entirely. "I didn't know how to get the right thing in the right way." But while it was happening, he had no such insight. He never confessed his behavior to God or any living soul.

The first young man was 17 when the two went on their last trip together. In a simple gesture that tormented Conway, the young man finally said, "I'll put my sleeping bag on the floor." It was not possible to learn what lasting impact the molestation had on the young man. Conway says the young man has forgiven him and that they remain friends. But despite several requests, the priest did not pass along an interview request from NEWSWEEK.

Three decades later Conway appears visibly tormented by his actions. "When he got old enough to show signs of resistance, I did stop. But I found somebody new, didn't I? I started that wheel rolling again." He soon found another teenage boy in need of a father figure, then another, with each friendship taking the same course. He recalls feeling guilty only twice, both times in the fleeting, bleary interval between wake and sleep. "I was able most of my life to block it out. I lived in two different worlds. So you need an event, some sort of crisis, and a whole lot of therapy and fear, to break through to the truth."

His crisis came in 1985, when his last victim was in his midteens. A nun grew alarmed when she entered Father Conway's parish bedroom after he had left to say mass and discovered the young man in his bed. She reported her suspicions to the Diocese of Cleveland, which began an investigation. Conway says the young man denied everything, but Conway requested treatment for his behavior anyway. "I knew I could not stop on my own," he says. Bob Tayek, spokesman for the Cleveland Diocese, says Conway spent a year at St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., the same church-sponsored sex-offender treatment program attended by Father John J. Geoghan, the Boston cleric accused of molesting 130 boys. Conway says his treatment consisted of talk therapy and group confessions. When he was free to leave, he requested retirement due to his disability. He has not been defrocked. He immediately moved to his cabin in the woods, and now regularly attends 12-step meetings for alcoholism and sexual compulsion. He prays every morning and in the afternoons stands before a shrine he built to Saint John the Evangelist, patron saint of the poisoned. He has vowed never to be alone with a teenager. "I feel raw for what I've done," he says. "I violated everything I ever believed in. I caused suffering to the very people I wanted to serve the most."

Screening Out Gay Priests

Through his journey of introspection, Neil Conway has come to know that he is gay. Yet he is convinced this has nothing to do with his crimes. Many conservative Catholics would disagree. While conceding that pedophilia is statistically no more likely among homosexuals than heterosexuals, they assert that gay men are often particularly attracted to boys in their teens, just as heterosexual men can prey upon teenage girls. At a press conference early this month, a Vatican spokesman endorsed screening out all gay priests. That may already be happening, according to Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity/USA, a gay Catholic group. "What we're hearing is that if gay priests acknowledge their identity and word gets back to the chancery, they're being pressured to resign ... even after decades of service," she says.

Other proposals to counter child abuse are gaining favor among liberal theologians. Some recommend allowing priests to marry, or ordaining women. But child abuse is not confined to celibates. As the Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union, notes, married ministers of other religions have also been charged with child abuse.

Though he is no expert, Conway believes the root of his behavior is more complex than any of these solutions contemplate. For one thing, he says he was molested himself at 14 by a relative. Researchers have noticed a correlation between a history of abuse and a tendency to abuse. He also admits that he is not much more emotionally developed than a teenager. (His longtime therapist, Dr. Melvin Allerhand, concurs.) "There's an old saying in Catholic theology, "Agere sequitur esse": your actions come out of your being. I thought the way a 14-year-old does, so I reverted to the age of 14 in my behavior." Immaturity is common among men who grope teens, according to Dr. Michael Miner, director of the treatment program for sex offenders at the University of Minnesota. "Interacting with kids is safer for them than interacting with adults."

Since going public with the truth about his history, Conway says he has gotten tremendous support from unexpected quarters. A nun he hadn't heard from in years wrote to praise his "courage and honesty." But there has also been outrage. His brothers wrote a letter expressing dismay. And on the day I visited, Conway and I made our way through the snow to the mailbox where he found an unsigned letter informing him that his neighbors had been notified he is a sexual predator. He was not shocked. "I'm willing to have my neighbors think I'm a pervert. I'm ready for my family to say I betrayed them and dragged the family name through the mud. I'm willing to do that with great sorrow, but I've got to make up for this terrible thing that I did."

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