Leading Knoxville priest accused of sexual abuse

Bishop Richard F. Stika and the priests of the Diocese of Knoxville gather to  celebrate the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in the existing Scared Heart Cathedral. The Roman Catholic Diocese has plans to build a new cathedral.
Bishop Richard F. Stika and the priests of the Diocese of Knoxville gather to celebrate the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in the existing Scared Heart Cathedral. The Roman Catholic Diocese has plans to build a new cathedral.

A founding priest of the Diocese of Knoxville who served in top positions throughout Tennessee for more than a half century is accused of sexual abuse in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The lawsuit filed by attorneys for East Tennessee resident Michael Boyd accuses Monsignor Francis Xavier Mankel, Bishop Anthony O'Connell, visiting priests and another diocesan school employee of repeatedly sexually abusing Boyd, a former altar boy, during the 1990s.

The sexual abuse occurred between 1991 and 1995 after Boyd, who was 10 years old at the time, transferred to Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Knoxville, according to the lawsuit filed by Memphis attorneys Gary Smith and Karen Campbell.

Boyd had previously confessed to church leaders that he was being abused at home and the lawsuit alleges Mankel used the information to take advantage of the fourth-grader. The lawsuit alleges Mankel subjected Boyd to what the priest called "love therapy," which the priest said would help him deal with the abuse at home. The "therapy" include having the boy flex for him, dirty jokes, fondling and the priest putting his penis against the boy's back.

Mankel made Boyd promise not to tell anyone about what was happening. When Boyd told his gym coach Pam Bernards, she told Boyd he was lying and such lies would likely close the school and his parents would become unemployed and homeless, the lawsuit states. In 1992, Bernards was promoted to principal of the school.

Boyd also allegedly was abused by Bishop O'Connell and visiting priests, whom the lawsuit said brought gifts for Mankel. The school music teacher William Lovelace is also accused of guiding Boyd's hand down his pants during a music lesson.

The abuse and subsequent concealment of abuse by the Catholic Church resulted in severe psychological damage to Boyd, according to the lawsuit.

In a letter sent Friday by Bishop Richard Stika to diocesan priests and employees, the bishop said Boyd had made allegations against Mankel last year, but an independent investigation found no credible evidence. The new lawsuit includes evidence not previously given by Boyd to the diocese, according to the letter.

The Times Free Press was unable to verify the nature of the independent investigation at the time of publication.

Stika's letter also said the diocese suspended Lovelace from his position as a music teacher at two unnamed Catholic schools.

Lovelace was listed as the church choir director in the most recent Sunday bulletin of Holy Ghost Catholic Church, which is connected to St. Joseph School in Knoxville. His biography page is no longer available on the St. Joseph website, but a cached version of the page listed him as a music teacher there for at least five years and a harp teacher in Knoxville, Johnson City and Morristown. School administrators at St. Joseph could not be reached for comment.

Lovelace was recently hired to teach at St. Mary's School in Oak Ridge. On Saturday, Father Brent Shelton notified members of the parish that the new hire had been suspended. Lovelace has also taught students at Maryville City Schools and Knox Music Studios, according to his website.

Mankel, who died in 2017 at age 81, helped found the Diocese of Knoxville when it was created in 1988. He had served in churches and schools across Tennessee, including in Memphis, Knoxville, Gatlinburg and Lawrenceburg.

O'Connell, who died in 2012 at age 73, served as the first bishop of Knoxville and resigned after admitting to abusing children during his time as a priest.

Pam Bernards, who is accused in the lawsuit of covering up the sexual abuse at the school in the 1990s, is now the director of professional development for the National Catholic Education Association.

Susan Vance, founder of the Tennessee chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Boyd had reached out to her in late summer 2018 after a Pennsylvania grand jury released its report detailing the systematic abuse of children and cover-ups by more than 300 Catholic priests. Boyd was ready to come forward with his story, Vance said.

Many of the people involved in the school and parish at the time of the abuse, but not named in the lawsuit, are still alive and in the area, Vance said. They will be forced to re-examine their faith leaders.

"There are going to be a lot of people considering a lot of things they didn't consider to be red flags at the time," she said. "This is not a yesterday occurrence by any means, but the number of people who know and who will remember are immense in Knoxville."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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