Former altar boy sues priest, diocese

A 24-year-old Charlotte man who says he was sexually molested in 1999 by a priest at St. Matthew Catholic Church filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the priest and accused the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte of covering up abuse.

The unnamed plaintiff was a former altar boy who was 14 when the alleged incidents occurred. His lawsuit says that the Rev. Robert Yurgel – arrested in April on charges of having sex with the plaintiff when he was a minor – initiated sexual contact on many occasions throughout 1999.

Several of the incidents, the suit says, happened on diocesan church property: in Yurgel's office at St. Matthew, in Ballantyne; in a room behind the altar at St. Matthew; in the rectory at Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church in Charlotte, where Yurgel was reassigned in July 1999; and in a car parked at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gastonia, where Yurgel sometimes traveled to say Mass in Spanish.

The lawsuit, filed by Charlotte attorney Seth Langson, casts Yurgel as a manipulative figure who took advantage of his spiritual standing as a priest and his close friendship with the plaintiff's family. That combination, the suit says, kept the teenager mum about what became an inappropriate emotional and physical relationship. He feared he'd “get in trouble” if he told anyone, the suit says.

The plaintiff kept the alleged sexual abuse secret until 2007, the suit says, when he told his sister. He then told mental health professionals.

But the suit claims Diocese of Charlotte officials knew by 1999 that Yurgel had had a homosexual encounter with an adult parishioner at St. Matthew during a trip to a casino. And in early October 1999, the suit says, the diocesan officials discovered a copy of a personal e-mail from the plaintiff to Yurgel.

That email, a copy of which is included in the lawsuit, says: “I just wanted to say goodnight and I LOVE YOU!!!!!! Thank you for talking to me!! Thank you!!! I will talk to you in the morning!! ILY!!!!!! Your little brother and best friend for eternity!!” It ends with keyboard symbols for heart and hugs.

Instead of disciplining Yurgel and notifying law enforcement, the suit charges, Bishop William Curlin, who then headed the diocese, contacted the Capuchin Franciscan Friars, Yurgel's religious order in New Jersey, and arranged a “rush transfer.” By late October, Yurgel was reassigned to New Jersey.

Diocese of Charlotte spokesman David Hains said the diocese had not yet received a copy of the suit. But he did say: “The statement that there was a ‘rush transfer' of Father Yurgel is an absolute falsehood.”

Hains added: “We will be responding to the lawsuit in due time.”

After Yurgel's arrest, Hains told the Observer that the priest's personnel file did not turn up “questions regarding sexual misconduct involving young people.” He declined then to discuss any other aspect of Yurgel's personnel file.

The Capuchin Franciscan Friars, which selected Yurgel to come to Charlotte in the 1990s, could not be reached for comment.

Because of a shortage of diocesan priests in and around Charlotte, Catholic orders of priests based elsewhere have agreed over the years to staff some parishes.

That's how Yurgel came to be assigned to St. Matthew in May 1997 and to Our Lady of Consolation in July 1999.

Yurgel, now 44 and assigned to a hospital in Passaic, N.J., was arrested in April on two counts of statutory sex offense and five counts of taking indecent liberties with a child.

He is free on a $225,000 bond paid for by his order.

The statutory sex offense charges are each punishable by up to life in prison.

The lawsuit, filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, asks for a jury trial and damages to be determined by the jury.

It names as defendants Yurgel, the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and the Capuchin Franciscan Friars province in Union City, N.J.