Retired Episcopal priest investigated for sexual misconduct

Episcopal Diocese alerts school alumni of allegations against former chaplain

By Eileen E. Flynn
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Friday, May 25, 2007

A former St. Stephen's Episcopal School chaplain accused of molesting students four decades ago is being investigated by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, according to a letter diocesan officials sent out to alumni this week.

The letter signed by the Right Rev. Don Wimberly, the bishop of the Houston-based diocese, says students accused the Rev. James L. Tucker of inappropriate sexual conduct in 1968, and that year Tucker was removed from the school after 10 years as its chaplain.

In 1970, he began serving as rector of St. James Church in Houston, where he stayed until his retirement in 1992, the letter says.

"The diocese has thoroughly and carefully investigated these allegations and believes that the claims have substance," the letter says. Head of School Roger Bowen also sent a letter to people associated with the school.

"There have been no other complaints of misconduct against the Rev. Tucker in the 39 years since he left St. Stephen's School," Wimberly's letter says.

Tucker, 79, could not be reached for comment at his Houston home Thursday afternoon. School officials referred calls to the diocese.

Tucker could face an ecclesiastical trial and lose his ability to function as a priest.

His daughter, the Rev. Alice Tucker — who is St. Stephen's current chaplain — said the "letters from the school and church were written based on allegations without any finding, and we're very disappointed that they would do that."

The bishop's letter says that in 1993, a former student made allegations to a school official that Tucker had molested a minor in the '60s but that the official took no action other than noting the conversation in the former student's file.

The decades-old allegations came up again at an alumni gathering in October, according to the letter.

Bowen relayed the information to diocesan officials, who launched an investigation.

The letter says an "outside investigator" interviewed former students and others who were at the school when Tucker worked there and found three people who claimed to be victims. The letter did not identify the three people.

"While the statute of limitations has passed for former students to press formal criminal charges, I have notified the Travis County district attorney of these allegations," Wimberly said in the letter.

Nancy Scanlan, a 1959 graduate of St. Stephen's who lives in Austin, said the letter was devastating for several alumni who considered Tucker part of their extended family.

"From my point of view, that is one skeleton that I wish had stayed in the closet," Scanlan said. "Jim Tucker was a beloved member of the community. Not to excuse the allegations, but it was 40 years ago."

Carol Barnwell, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said a committee that advises the bishop is continuing to review the allegations and wants to find out if other people have similar allegations.

"The whole reason for sending this (letter) out was to make sure we reach all the people who might have been victimized," Barnwell said.

Bowen's letter offered an apology for the way the allegations were handled in the 1960s.

"We regret that prompt handling and counseling did not occur then," he wrote. "We regret that this issue has caused conflict among those who believe long-ago matters should be forgotten and those who believe appropriate steps should be taken, even years too late, to counsel and apologize to victims.

"We believe that part of healing involves candid and open acknowledgment and understanding of the harm, and that victims often can and do and should expect open and public apologies and accountability," Bowen added. "St. Stephen's School apologizes to the victims and to the entire St. Stephen's School community."

Over the past several years, 19,000 diocesan staff members and volunteers have received abuse prevention training through a program called Safeguarding God's Children, she said.

The sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in 2002 has led other denominations to re-evaluate how they identify and try to prevent such abuse in churches and schools.

Founded in 1950 in West Austin, St. Stephen's is a private boarding and day school for students who are in grades 6 through 12.

There is an active alumni association in Austin that includes many prominent community leaders.

eflynn@statesman.com; 445-3812

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