By Jay Tokasz
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
The Buffalo News
Fewer than a full two days into a civil trial, a former priest agreed to settle a lawsuit with the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York over his suspension and eventual dismissal from the priesthood.
Terms of the settlement were not released, but in a statement, the diocese on Wednesday said that Simon B. Howson, former rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Batavia, has not been reinstated as a priest.
"The diocese is thankful the case has been settled," the statement reads. "The settlement agreement reached today does not revoke the deposition of Simon Howson imposed by the Ecclesiastical Court. We will continue to pray for everyone who was involved in this matter."
Diocesan spokeswoman Laurie Wozniak said that Bishop J. Michael Garrison had no further comment.
Howson claimed in court papers that a gay priest in Batavia had sexually harassed him and that when Howson complained, the bishop retaliated with a suspension based upon trumped-up charges.
"There was no admission of wrongdoing by the diocese at all," said Brendan P. Kelleher, attorney for the diocese.
Financial terms of the settlement are being kept confidential, Kelleher said.
Neither Howson, nor his attorney, Andrew P. Fleming, could be reached on Wednesday to comment.
In an interview with a local television station, Fleming said the bishop also would apologize in writing to Howson. Kelleher characterized the forthcoming statement from the bishop as "an expression that perhaps things could have been handled differently," rather than an apology.
Garrison also agreed that he and the diocese would not actively oppose attempts by Howson to appeal the decision of the ecclesiastical court to a church appellate body known as the Court of Review. Howson also is eligible under Episcopal canon law to apply to be restored to the priesthood.
Howson, 42, was suspended in October of 2004 and filed a lawsuit about a month later, claiming that the diocese and Garrison were retaliating against him because he had accused another male priest of sexual harassment.
Howson subsequently was charged by a diocesan review committee with fraudulently handling church funds, misrepresenting himself in a scheme to raise money and other alleged indiscretions.
In 2007, an ecclesiastical court found "clear and convincing evidence" against Howson, whose status as a priest was revoked a few months later by Garrison. Fleming has maintained in court that all of the allegations against Howson were false.
A trial in State Supreme Court began on Tuesday and included testimony by Garrison. The settlement was reached Wednesday morning.
Howson, now a hospital chaplain near Fresno, Calif., was seeking full reinstatement as an Episcopal priest, as well as back pay and benefits totaling about $300,000.
The diocese had asked State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek in September to dismiss the lawsuit, but the judge ruled it could proceed.