Man sues Arizona diocese, alleging negligent handling of 1970s sex abuse by priest

By Egan Millard
Posted Jul 24, 2019

[Episcopal News Service] A man who says he was sexually abused by a priest in the early 1970s is suing the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and the Tucson parish where the abuse allegedly occurred, claiming his reports of repeated molestation were ignored at the time. It may be the first lawsuit to take advantage of a new Arizona law that extends the statute of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse. The diocese, though not disputing that the abuse took place, denies his accusations of a cover-up and says the matter was handled appropriately at the time.

According to the lawsuit, Charles Taylor was sexually abused for several years around age 12 by the Rev. Richard Babcock, a priest at Grace Church (now Grace St. Paul’s Church), in the church and in Babcock’s home. Taylor says he told the rector about the abuse at the time, but the rector failed to stop it, and Babcock continued to abuse him and other children. The lawsuit, filed on July 12, also claims that the diocese knew that Babcock was abusing children and covered it up by “reassigning him to other churches.” The complaint consists of two counts each – negligence and breach of fiduciary duty – against the diocese and Grace St. Paul’s. Babcock, now deceased, admitted to having abused children in a sworn affidavit before his death, according to the law firm representing Taylor.

Taylor had tried to sue Grace St. Paul’s and the diocese in 1991 but was unable to do so because the statute of limitations had expired, his law firm says. But in May, a new state law went into effect, allowing victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits up until their 30th birthday. It also allows anyone to file a suit until Dec. 31, 2020, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.

The Episcopal Church has extended its own internal statute of limitations for reporting clergy sexual misconduct against an adult in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Resolution D034, passed at the 2018 General Convention, suspends the time limit for reporting those cases, effective from Jan. 1, 2019, through Dec. 31, 2021. The church has no time limit for reporting a case of sexual abuse against a person under age 21.

In a July 18 letter to the Grace St. Paul’s community, the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Reddall, bishop of Arizona, said the diocese takes every allegation of misconduct seriously, no matter how old, and is reviewing Taylor’s complaint.

“He and his claims have been known to us for many years,” Reddall wrote, “but despite repeated legal action, we have never been able to come to satisfactory resolution.”

The diocese first learned of Taylor’s allegations in 1991, Reddall told Episcopal News Service, and there is no record of him reporting any abuse before then. The diocese had no reports of misconduct by Babcock until 1979, when two boys from another Tucson church who had encountered Babcock through choir said he had molested them. Babcock had left Grace in 1978 and became the vicar of St. David’s in Page, Arizona, in 1979. According to Reddall, “everything indicates that there was a perfectly normal transition process.”

“The move was not initiated by the diocese, and there’s nothing to indicate that it was inspired by any misbehavior or cover-up on his part,” Reddall said.

That same year, the two other boys came forward, saying Babcock had abused them.

“Within days of receiving that report, he was inhibited, and after an investigation a couple months later, he was given the choice of renouncing his orders or going to an ecclesiastical trial, and he chose to renounce his orders,” Reddall said.

“To the best of our knowledge, the diocese handled it in 1979 appropriately for 1979. One question we still have is we don’t know if it was reported to the police or not at that time. There’s one letter that indicates that someone was going to report it to the police, but we don’t have anything in the file on that. So it’s possible it was reported and not followed up on, and it’s also possible that it wasn’t reported. But the priest was removed immediately and never regained his orders.”

Reddall says she can’t be sure whether Taylor’s allegations against Babcock are true.

“We don’t know whether he was abused by Richard Babcock or not, but we do know that Richard Babcock admitted to abusing some other boys, and what we now know about child abuse would imply that those were not the only two boys that Richard Babcock had ever abused,” Reddall said.

The diocese obtained a restraining order preventing Taylor from visiting or contacting Episcopal churches because, Reddall said, he had threatened then-Bishop Kirk Smith, other clergy, and himself.

“He was threatening that he was going to harm himself in a church in front of children. And so we felt that in order to keep our people safe, we needed to seek the injunction against him,” Reddall said.

In an interview with Tucson news station KOLD, Taylor acknowledged those incidents and said he was trying to confront the church about inaction on child sexual abuse.

“We absolutely believe that churches need to be safe places, and I believe our churches are, and that’s why we’ve been putting all the policies and procedures in place over the last 30 years that we have,” Reddall said.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.


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