SOUTH PORTLAND – Parishioners at two Roman Catholic churches learned Sunday their priest had been temporarily removed while the Portland diocese investigates his involvement with a former church volunteer charged with sexual assault.

The diocese is investigating whether the Rev. Paul Coughlin put a minor at risk when he knew John Skinner of Stonington. Skinner was recently indicted, charged with sexually assaulting a teenager from 1990 to 1994 while serving as a youth ministry volunteer at St. Mary of Lourdes in Lincoln, Maine.

“This is an ethical issue with the church, and we want to know when did Father Coughlin know that there was a complaint against John Skinner,” said Sue Bernard, diocese spokeswoman. “We’re trying to find out what he knew and when he knew it.”

The diocese also is investigating whether Coughlin, who has served as pastor of Holy Cross and St. John the Evangelist in South Portland since 1996, allowed Skinner to live with him at St. John’s rectory in Portland.

Coughlin, 69, of Woburn, Mass., was ordained in 1966. His first assignment in Maine was at St. Athanasius and St. John in Rumford in 1970. He also served in parishes in Waterville, Oakland, Augusta, Bangor and Wells.

Coughlin was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor in 1985. Those claims were investigated in 2002 and could not be substantiated, Bernard said. The diocese plans to re-examine those complaints during this investigation.

Church officials anticipate the investigation will take several months. Coughlin will not be allowed to live in the rectory or have unsupervised contact with children until the investigation is complete, Bernard said.

Monsignor Michael Henchal, pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Cape Elizabeth, will serve as temporary administrator for Coughlin’s parishes.

Henchal, who has known Coughlin for 30 years, said he was saddened by the news. But he stressed it does not mean Coughlin has done anything wrong.

“Sometimes people are restored and sometimes they are not,” Henchal said. “But in some ways it enhances credibility when you take meaningful action and show that you are taking complaints seriously.”

AP-ES-08-08-04 1306EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.