Episcopal bishop calls for abused to step up

Erie leader in '70s, '80s accused of sex assaults on girls

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Four girls, some as young as 10, were allegedly molested in the 1970s and 1980s by the Episcopal Bishop of Erie, Donald Davis -- and now the current bishop is reaching out to identify more victims, if they exist.

In a letter read after services Sunday at the diocese's 34 churches, Bishop Sean Rowe, of the Erie-based Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, asked that any women who may have been abused by the late Rev. Davis come forward.

"On behalf of the church, I offer an abject apology to Bishop Davis' victims, their families, and everyone whose trust in the church has been violated, and I ask for your forgiveness," Bishop Rowe wrote.

"I cannot undo the grievous wrongs that Bishop Davis has done, nor take away the pain of his victims, but I can do my best to ensure that, from now on, this diocese will tell the truth and seek healing and reconciliation for those who have been harmed."

In an interview Monday, the bishop said he was first alerted to the abuse by one of the victims in March, prompting an investigation that revealed more credible allegations of sexual abuse from three other girls.

All of the victims have asked to remain anonymous, he said.

"We believe that these allegations are credible. We believe the stories," Bishop Rowe said, but he declined to give more details about the cases "because we don't give away anything that would compromise the identity of the victims."

Two of the victims were abused at a diocesan summer camp, Camp Nazareth, outside of Mercer, he said. The other two were abused over a period of years.

"It's tragic," he added.

Bishop Davis, who led the Erie diocese from 1974 to 1991, resigned from the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops in 1994 as part of the resolution of those cases and died in 2007, at age 78. No information about the cases was ever made public by the national church.

But after he heard about the abuse, Bishop Rowe contacted the national church's presiding bishop, Katherine Jefforts Schori, who fully supported his decision to go public.

If such allegations had surfaced under his watch, he added, police would have been immediately contacted and canon law processes -- put in place in recent years to protect children and youth from abuse -- would have been followed.

"I don't know why things were handled the way they were," he said, but he believed that the victims didn't want the cases made public. His predecessor, Bishop Robert Rowley, who died in January, was aware of incidents of abuse as early as 1993 and reported them to the presiding bishop's office, he said.

While wishing to preserve the victims' confidentiality, openness by the church is important, said Bishop Rowe, who, at 35, is the youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was elected to the Erie post in 2007.

"Christians tell the truth," he said. "We talk to our people about repentance, but you can't repent if you can't name what you've done. I'm personally devastated by the news that one of my predecessors would betray the trust of children," he said.

The church is not facing any litigation, he added.

After one of the victims alerted him to the abuse in a phone call March 30, Bishop Rowe began an investigation that included consultations with licensed professionals outside the church organization who are experts in sexual abuse, he said.

After contacting the Office of the Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church's New York headquarters, Bishop Rowe was referred to the church's Office for Pastoral Development, which had kept records about the case, he said.

"What I then learned was that in the past there were other allegations against him that I'd been completely unaware of," Bishop Rowe said.

It's not clear exactly when the church first knew of the allegations, or how long the investigation proceeded, but ultimately, Bishop Rowe said, Rev. Davis was placed under an agreement prohibiting him from functioning as a bishop.

"He was to undergo evaluation, receive counseling and resign from the House of Bishops," he said.

According to an obituary posted on the church's website, Bishop Davis had been living in Sarasota, Fla., when he died in 2007.

He was born in New Castle and raised in Frederick, Md. He graduated from Westminster College in New Wilmington in 1949 and Princeton Theological Seminary in 1952.

He served in the dioceses of Washington, Indianapolis and Ohio before being elected the sixth Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania in 1973, succeeding Bishop William Crittenden in the post.

Those with any information can contact the Erie Episcopal Diocese can call 1-814-456-4203 or e-mail Bishop Rowe at bishop@dionwpa.org. All exchanges will be confidential.


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com .


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