Priests on sex offender registry find a home in alternative ministry

Father Jamie Forsythe has always felt his purpose was to be a priest. He pursued that calling even after he pleaded guilty in 1989 to a charge of attempting to take indecent liberties with a 15-year-old boy in Kansas, serving time in prison, and being laicized — officially removed from the priesthood — by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City.

Forsythe, then in his 30s, was released from prison after less than four months of his one-to-five-year sentence, and eventually found work at Metropolitan Community Church of the Black Hills, a progressive Christian church in South Dakota that primarily serves LGBTQ worshippers. Forsythe was ordained within the Metropolitan Community Church denomination in 1996, according to the Rapid City Journal, and began working at the Black Hills church in January 2000. But when the congregation discovered in 2002 he had failed to register as a sex offender in the state, he resigned from his post and made his way to Wilton Manors, Florida. 

That's where Forsythe found a job at Holy Angels, nestled in a strip mall between a tapas bar and a Peruvian restaurant. 

It is part of a church system called The National Catholic Church of North America, but it is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Forsythe was hired as a priest there in 2005, according to the church. The alternative diocese is home to about 200 parishioners in seven parishes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Washington, D.C. 

Similar to Roman Catholic faith, the church's website states it adheres to the seven sacraments and the Sacred Traditions, but it also stresses a message of inclusion. It ordains women, married people and those who identify in the LGBTQ community. It says that nobody is denied Holy Communion or a chance to be a part of the religious community — a welcome extended even to those with sexual misconduct in their pasts.

Forsythe, now 65, offered an explanation for his past child sex abuse in a phone call with CBS News, saying he "was a very unhealthy person" in an institution "that was unhealthy for me." 

"The young man I was involved with was just, like, two months shy of his 16th birthday, which would have been the age of consent in Kansas at that time. But that is neither here nor there," Forsythe said. "God doesn't make mistakes … what I see now is that my past experience really makes me a much more compassionate person." 

And he is not the only person with a history of misconduct to be accepted as a priest in the National Catholic Church. 

Thomas Rowlands Jr. was not previously in the Roman Catholic ministry before he was ordained by the National Catholic Church and became a pastor at St. Luke's in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2019. Rowlands was found guilty in North Carolina in 2012 of possessing child pornography while in the military, according to his sex offender registration. 

Although he and Forsythe are both registered, they are no longer under confinement, supervision or other court-imposed sanctioning, according to their offender registrations.

There are no warnings or statements about these priests' pasts from their churches online. Some of the few words about Forsythe on the Holy Angels website are his own: "I know one thing with complete certainty: God Forgives. This is the foundation of my ministry. Even though I screwed up and sinned big time, God says 'I love you, I forgive you, I restore you and I will use you.'" 

The presiding bishop of National Catholic Church, Thomas Sterner, told CBS News that the church knew of the two priests' histories prior to hiring them. When they accepted them, he said, they made sure Forsythe and Rowlands were "in recovery" and hadn't faced any additional allegations of misconduct since their initial cases.

Sterner also said that Forsythe and Rowlands are expected to tell all parishioners about their histories of sexual abuse. But he acknowledged that the diocese's leadership does not follow up to make sure every family and parishioner is aware of the priests' records. CBS News has not been able to con...

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