CHARLOTTE -- The Rev. Robert Yurgel, the Catholic priest accused of molesting a 14-year-old boy in Charlotte a decade ago, is expected to plead guilty today in a deal with prosecutors that will send him to prison for more than seven years.
Yurgel, 44, worked at Charlotte's St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ballantyne in the late 1990s, where the teen was an altar boy.
“It's a sad situation,” Yurgel's lawyer George Laughrun said. “Father Yurgel is torn up about it, what he did. He spent his whole life trying to help people. But he crossed the line big time.”
Laughrun said he expects his client to plead guilty to one sex offense today.
And for the first time, the priest's accuser could speak out in the courtroom.
The accuser's mother told the Observer last week that her son still suffers from what happened.
“He has continued to suffer with flashbacks, nightmares and fear …” she said. “As parents, we are still trying to come to grips and bring back a sense of peace in our lives. No parent should ever have to hear the words that their child was sexually abused. … The despair, shame, embarrassment and fear he has dealt with stole much of his normal childhood.”
The mother said she is proud of her son for coming forward. The Charlotte Observer generally doesn't identify people who say they are victims of sex crimes.
“We only hope that through his actions other children will be protected and that by his example other abuse victims will have the courage to begin a healing process that is deserved and overdue,” she said.
Yurgel's case is the first involving a Catholic priest in which the alleged sexual misconduct happened in Charlotte, though the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte had such cases in the 1980s and 1990s in Boone and Salisbury.
Revelations of child sexual abuse by priests – and sometimes cover-ups by their bishops – have scandalized many Catholic dioceses across the country. The dioceses of Raleigh and Charleston, for example, have paid millions to settle victims' claims.
Yurgel, a member of the order of Capuchin Franciscan Friars, was indicted in 2008 and charged with eight counts of taking indecent liberties with a child and six counts of statutory sex offense.
The alleged victim, now 24, has sued Yurgel, the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and the Capuchin Franciscan Friars. The lawsuit says Yurgel molested him and accuses the diocese and the Franciscan Friars of covering up the sexual abuse.
The lawsuit says Yurgel molested the boy in the room behind the altar at St. Matthew, now the largest church in the Charlotte diocese, and in the rectory of Our Lady of Consolation Church in Charlotte. The lawsuit alleges that the abuse also occurred at the boy's home when his parents were away, as well as in the priest's car.
Yurgel, who was the parochial vicar, or assistant to the pastor, gained the boy's confidence “by pretending to be a friend, counselor and mentor” and told him that the sexual contact was OK because they loved and cared about each other, the lawsuit alleges.
“Father Yurgel told (the boy) that he should never tell anyone about their sexual contact and love because it was private, and other people would not understand,” the lawsuit says.
“Father Yurgel told (the boy) that if he told anyone about their sexual contact, people, especially (the boy's) parents, would be angry … and that they would both get in trouble.”
The lawsuit also includes an e-mail the teenager allegedly sent Yurgel in October 1999. The teen professed his love for the priest in the message, which was mistakenly sent to a church employee as well, according to the lawsuit.
Top church officials were informed about the e-mail, the lawsuit says.
Yet instead of trying to determine if the teen had been molested or notifying law enforcement, the lawsuit alleges, Bishop William Curlin, who then headed the diocese, contacted the Franciscan Friars in New Jersey and arranged a “rush transfer.” Yurgel was reassigned to New Jersey the same month the lawsuit says the e-mail was sent.
David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese, declined comment on most of those allegations. He wouldn't say whether church officials knew about such an e-mail.
Hains did say the allegation that the church arranged a rush transfer is “a complete falsehood.”
“Father Yurgel was transferred at the request of the Capuchin Franciscan Friars – not because of any allegation of molestation,” he said. “The diocese hasn't covered up anything.”
Jeffrey Grady, an attorney for the Franciscan Friars, declined comment.
Attorneys for Yurgel, the Charlotte diocese and the Franciscan Friars have asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, saying the allegations are barred by the state's statute of limitations.
The accuser's lawyer, Seth Langson, said his client has suffered for years and hopes Yurgel will plead guilty in the criminal case today.
“If he does, maybe it will contribute to our client's long, slow healing process.”
-- The Charlotte Observer