Howard White, the former Episcopal priest who has faced child sexual abuse allegations across several states over the course of several decades, had his day in court Monday.
That day did not come in the form of the scheduled jury trial, but a plea arrangement that was solidified in Haywood County Superior Court under Judge Thomas Lock.
The plea came after White, 78, was held in Haywood County for over a year as he faced 17 felonies related to the sexual abuse of multiple children — abuse he finally admitted to. The Haywood incidents occurred between 1984 and 2006 where White live while serving as rector for Waynesville’s Grace Church in the Mountains.
Prior to returning to Haywood to face his pending charges here, he was held at a county correctional facility in Boston after pleading guilty to five counts of assault and battery related to the 1973 sexual abuse of a boy.
Earlier this year, Haywood County’s Resident Superior Court Judge, Brad Letts, issued a written order stating that White’s trial would be held Oct. 21, 2019, a date defense attorneys Sean Devereux of Asheville and Thomas Pavlinic of Annapolis, Maryland, wanted to delay. Last month, Lock denied the motion, setting the trial date in stone.
However, as Oct. 21 approached, behind closed doors, Devereux and Pavlinic worked out a plea deal with District Attorney Ashley Welch’s office that allowed White to plead guilty to several felonies — an agreement approved by all the victims.
Following the hearing, Welch recalled how the plea was arranged.
“From the minute the judge about a month ago denied the defendant’s request to continue, the attorneys approached us wanting a plea,” she said. “We didn’t extend a plea offer. They brought us a plea offer, and we took that plea offer to the victims. I think the victims would have been OK with it if we said, you know, we should take this, but we could not do that. We went back to the attorneys with our offer, and that was only after we consulted all the victims and the officer.”
Judge Lock offered his thoughts on the plea from the bench.
“Were it not but for the age of the defendant and the willingness of the victims to accept the terms of this negotiated plea agreement, frankly I’m not sure I would accept it,” he said. “But looking at all the circumstances, it does appear to be reasonable, and I commend all of you for wanting to resolve the case along these lines.”
Although White was initially facing multiple first-degree forcible rape charges, those were all downgraded under the plea agreement and White ultimately pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree forcible rape, eight counts of second-degree forcible sex offense and seven counts of indecent liberties with a child.
What victims endured
The details of the assaults, as read into the record by Welch and agreed to by White, were horrendous. White used not only his position of power within the church to abuse children, but also his status as a guardian ad litem.
Two of the four victims were troubled teens who came to stay briefly with White, who was at the time considered a responsible adult. In addition, he frequently used alcohol as a means to both draw close to and impair his victims.
One victim, Margaret Yarbrough, who was 15 at the time of the abuse, agreed to share her name on the record. She was abused by White beginning in August of 1984. Welch said Yarbrough’s father and White were “drinking buddies.” One night when they were hanging out and Yarbrough was around, her father made her perform a sex act on White. From there, the assaults continued for about a year. At one point, she grew tired of her father’s abuse and reasoned that White, as a religious leader, was more trustworthy.
“He got very angry, and this was the most violent of the offenses,” Welch said of that particular forcible rape.
Another victim was taken out of the home by Haywood County DSS and ended up at Crossnore School and Children’s Home in Avery County. When back in Haywood on breaks, he would stay with White, who was involved in the foster program. White initially treated the victim to things he’d never enjoyed in his life.
“He went and bought [the victim] a suit for Easter. He had never had a suit before,” Welch said.
White took the victim on multiple trips, including one to the nation’s capitol.
“On that evening, Mr. White sexually assaulted [the victim] in Washington, D.C.,” Welch said.
The worst abuse occurred on July 4, when White took the victim to see fireworks at Lake Junaluska. There, they had some beers before coming back to the rectory.
“That night, White wanted [the victim] to sleep in his bedroom,” Welch said.
Only a few days later, upon turning 16, that victim ran away from home and spent many years addicted to drugs before being sober for the last decade.
The offenses related to another victim occurred in the summer of 1984. This victim was having trouble with school and the law, for which he was on probation. One night, that victim’s father got angry, beat him and kicked him out of the home.
“His father then took his son to Howard White’s place … and White gave him some beer,” Welch said.
That night, when the victim was in the shower, he was ambushed and sexually assaulted by White.
The assault of the fourth victim occurred in the summer of 2004, toward the end of White’s tenure at Grace Church. At that time, the victim, just 8, volunteered at the church with his mother. One day, he was helping in White’s office, when the rector exposed himself and sexually assaulted the victim.
While one victim — the one who White took to Washington, D.C. — simply took an opportunity to look White in the eye and forgive him during the court procedure, Yarbrough offered an incredibly candid and powerful statement that brought many in the courtroom to tears.
She began by recalling how exhausting it was to conceal her abuse.
“People wonder why I never said no or why I didn’t fight my father when he told me to do whatever the defendant said,” she said. “But they have no concept of what it is to fight for survival as a child in your own home on a daily basis.”
“The 1980s weren’t like today,” she added. “Who would I have told when this involved influential men in the community?”
Yarbrough talked about how she developed her faith throughout her childhood before having it taken away by someone she was supposed to trust more than just about anyone else.
“My trust in the church was destroyed. My relationship with Christ went silent. I could no longer find any safety or security,” she said.
“I still get claustrophobic being in a church,” she added.
The abuse left a void Yarbrough said she tried to fill any way she could. Eventually, she attempted suicide a couple times. One night, she took 60 muscle relaxers and even “coded” a couple times in the hospital before recovering.
Then Yarbrough began her journey to find a way to cope with her severe depression, anxiety and PTSD. While she admitted she habitually used opioids for about 20 years, she quit cold turkey on Jan. 7, 2014.
“I remember vividly during my daughter’s baptism having to swallow opioids to stop my panic that creeps over my shoulder like an unwelcome guest,” she said.
“I was clearly addicted to them,” she added. “I was medicating emotional pain I didn’t know how to handle.”
Yarbrough said she has learned that there are real consequences for actions and people must take responsibility, no matter what kind of pain is underlying those decisions. Although she said she has been healing over these last few years, the effects of trauma can ripple from generation to the next.
She said she sometimes sees signs of her trauma in her children, directly and indirectly. In addition to noticing anxiety in at least one of her kids, she talked about how her daughter found out her mother had been sexually abused.
“My daughter learned about this one day at school last year,” she said. “Kids were messing around and Googling their parents. She found out I was a victim of sexual abuse before I had time to sit down with a psychologist and tell her.”
Yarbrough encouraged people to think of White from a place of empathy and pity.
“Some people say they hope a defendant like Howard White learns what it’s like to be victimized while in prison,” she said. “I do not. I do not wish this kind of violation on anyone for any reason.”
White speaks out
In a surprise turn, White offered a prepared statement of his own, something Welch said she’s never seen a defendant do before. In his statement, which he struggled at times to deliver, White said he’s been sober for 24 years, but prior to that was a “functioning alcoholic,” adding that he would drink himself to sleep daily.
“When I finished my day of pastoral duties, that’s when I would begin drinking,” he said.
White said his memory throughout the mid-80s, when offenses related to three of the victims occurred, is hazy, partially because of the drinking, partially because of his age.
“But my drinking in ‘84 and ‘85 is never an excuse,” he said emphatically.
White said he has never stopped feeling remorse for the pain he’s caused others, noting that when he completed the 12-step program, on the step that required him to make a list of all the people he’d harmed, it was 38 pages long.
“I thought I had cleared the wreckings of my past,” he said. “But apparently not.”
White said he credited his alcohol rehabilitation for saving his life.
“I can only hope 25 years of sobriety is a measure of atonement for the harm I have done in the lives of others, especially those who turned to me for guidance,” he said.
White was sentenced to 12 years in prison, minus just over a year of pre-trial confinement, and will have to register as a sex offender for 30 years. Ultimately, Welch said he may have the chance of parole after six years.
Although there are accusations in other states against White, because of those states’ statutes of limitations, charges cannot be filed in those matters. However, Welch encouraged other North Carolina victims to come forward.
“There are other victims out there, we just don’t know who they are,” she said. “If they choose to come forward, then we will look into that, and if they don’t, then that’s their call. That is in their discretion.”
A tough investigation
Throughout her statement, Yarbrough praised the work of Lt. Chris Chandler with the Waynesville Police Department, who headed up the investigation. While Yarbrough didn’t initially intend to file charges against White, once one of her close friends read about his abuse case in New England, she called a bishop to report what happened decades back.
In accordance with the episcopal church’s canon, the allegation was reported to law enforcement. That was when Chandler called Yarbrough.
“He never questioned whether or not I was telling the truth,” she said. “He believed me from the start. He worked for over a year to gain my trust before he asked me specific questions.
“I had to reveal intimate details of the abuse to him when I had never told anyone,” she added. “Lt. Chandler helped me to find my voice.”
After the hearing, upon seeing the victims’ relief, the normally stoic Chandler was sporting a wide smile.
“We want to encourage people who have been victims of this type of criminal behavior to tell their story,” he said. “This is an example of a case that absolutely gave me the opportunity to be a conduit to be their voice in court. It’s perhaps one of my proudest moments and it’s one of the greatest honors of my career.”
Chandler said this case was challenging, given how old the offenses were, but he said he was thrilled with the result.
“The fact that the victims’ voices were heard and he is being held accountable for his actions, that’s what makes the difference, that’s what matters,” he said. “It’s an amazing outcome.”
Church in the crosshairs
However, for some of White’s victims, matters haven’t concluded yet, as there are still pending civil cases against the Episcopal Church. Yarbrough said she knows there are some church members who will not want to believe the truth, even after White admitted to the abuse.
“They will still refuse to believe the more than 14 victims who have come forward in five different states,” she said. “There are people who have attended Grace Church for decades, people in positions of power still trying to find a way to justify what they knew, suspected or refused to admit.”
“This case shows how prevalent and how far up the sexual abuse is,” she added. “The Episcopal Church knew the defendant was dangerous but continued to allow him to be around children. Adults at Grace Church knew, and they continued to ignore what was documented in his file.”
Welch also addressed the church’s role in White’s decades-long abuse coverup.
“My family is Episcopal, so going through and preparing this case for trial was absolutely atrocious after seeing what the Episcopal Church did for all of these years to allow this man to prey on children and get away with it,” she said. “That was probably one of the most disappointing and frustrating aspects of this case, was that the church moved him up and down the eastern seaboard any time it was mentioned that he was hurting children, and their solution was to tell them he shouldn’t be around kids and they’d move him to another parish. That was one of the most despicable things. These children did not have to be victims, and if the church had done its job when it was first brought to their attention, this would not have happened to them.”
Welch said she’s aware some are going to be unhappy with the relatively short sentence White was given, but she believes justice, at last, has been served.
“It was repeated by all of the victims that they weren’t interested in the sentence as much as they were him pleading guilty,” she said, adding that testifying at a trial is typically difficult and even traumatic for victims of sexual abuse. “If we went to trial, I was pretty confident we’d win, but when he’s 78, I’m not sure what the difference between 12 years and 100 is. Also, what was very important to at least one of these victims is there is a big difference between being found guilty and admitting your guilt.”
Leaders from the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina were unable to be reached for comment.