Former ministry leader at NC university sexually abused student for years, lawsuit says

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A former Catholic ministry leader at Western Carolina University in the North Carolina mountains sexually abused a student for years in the 1980s, according to a lawsuit the former student filed on Tuesday against his alleged abuser and the Charlotte Catholic Diocese.

On Friday, the diocese issued a statement that it “has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse, and we continue to encourage anyone who has been the victim of abuse to seek help and report to authorities.”

Al Behm is named in the lawsuit as the man who allegedly sexually abused the student at WCU in Cullowhee. The student said he had known Behm since he was a boy in Connecticut.

Behm was an ordained Catholic brother of the Ohio-based Glenmary Home Missioners religious order, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Mecklenburg County Civil Superior Court.

From about 1980 to 1984, the diocese and Behm’s religious order assigned him to Western Carolina University as the first full-time Catholic campus minister, the lawsuit says.

The former student said Behm repeatedly sexually assaulted him on a visit to WCU when he was 16 or 17 and later as a student there. The assaults caused such “severe emotional distress,” according to the lawsuit, that the student “was unable to graduate from college and experienced a significant delay in entering the workforce” full-time.

‘Credibly accused’

In 2019, according to the lawsuit, the diocese and Glenmary finally “publicly admitted that Behm had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse, in the states of Kentucky, where he served before he was assigned to work at WCU, and Tennessee,” where his order assigned him after WCU.

The former student sued the diocese and Glenmary for negligence and Behm on claims of assault, battery and inflicting emotional distress.

The lawsuit, filed by Raleigh lawyers Leto Copeley and David Stradley, wants a jury to award at least $200,000 in damages to the former student.

The statute of limitations usually runs out on legal claims so old. The 2020 extension of a 2019 law signed by Gov. Roy Cooper opened a two-year “revival window” to file such claims, according to the lawsuit.

Behm appears on Glenmary list of alleged abusers

In a statement Friday, the Charlotte diocese said Behm was publicly named in October 2019 on Glenmary’s list of members accused of abuse.

“Glenmary’s list prompted the Diocese of Charlotte to include Behm’s name on our accountability website, on a list of those who served here and were later accused of abuse elsewhere,” according to the statement.

Behm left the Glenmary order in 1993, according to the diocese. He now lives in California or the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly Burma, the lawsuit said.

According to a public records search by the Observer on Saturday, Behm is 83 and lives in Los Angeles, Calif. He has no home or cell phone number listed in public records and couldn’t be reached for comment.

The diocese just received the lawsuit and needs time to review it before commenting about its claims that diocesan officials were negligent in the case, a spokeswoman said Friday.

‘Failed to protect minors’

Father Dan Dorsey, president of Glenmary Home Missioners, expressed remorse in an email to the Observer.

“I cannot comment on active lawsuits, but I can say that at times in the past, Glenmary has failed to protect minors and vulnerable adults,” Dorsey said. “Moreover, our response to victims has often been inadequate.

“On behalf of Glenmary I deeply regret these failures. Glenmary is committed to healing and justice for all involved.”