MANCHESTER, N.H., Dec 31, 2002 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Authorities on Tuesday awaited the results of tests to determine if a New Hampshire priest accused of molesting a minor took his own life.

If confirmed, the Rev. Richard T. Lower, 57, would be the third Roman Catholic priest this year -- and at least the 13th since 1986 in the United States -- to commit suicide following allegations of sexually abusing children.

Lower, the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church in New London, N.H., was found dead Sunday morning in a rural area not far from where his car was parked in Enfield.

The discovery by a hiker came after a man on Thursday alleged to officials in the Diocese of Manchester that Lower had molested him in 1973 when the man was a youth.

The diocese on Friday decided to put Lower on administrative leave pending an investigation and, under its policies, would have made public the reason for the leave.

While police said the determination of the cause of death is pending results of toxicology tests, Manchester Bishop John B. McCormack referred to his death as a suicide.

In a letter to Lower's parishioners, McCormack wrote the "anguish, loss and fear that Fr. Lower most likely was dealing with must have diminished his capacity to recognize the inestimable value of his own personal dignity and the pain that his suicide would bring to many, especially his family and parishioners."

According to diocesan chancellor the Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, Lower was assigned to the parish after he was accused in 1989 of having "inappropriate sexual contact" with an adult male in Merrimack. Lower denied the charge.

Arsenault said that after Lower underwent a psychological evaluation, he was returned to ministry without restriction.

Authorities said the new accusation against Lower came on Thursday from a man who alleged the priest sexually assaulted him as a minor in 1973 at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Littleton, N.H.

Diocesan spokesman Pat McGee said Lower was informed of the charge that day, and while "shocked," neither denied nor confirmed the allegation. The diocesan sexual misconduct review board on Friday decided that Lower should go on administrative leave.

Arsenault said that after he was unable to contact Lower that day or on Saturday to inform him of the decision, police were notified.

The priest's relatives found his car about 10 a.m. Sunday in parking lot in a remote section of Enfield. It was about that same time that a hiker found Lower's body on a trail not far from the parking lot. Police said there were no outward signs of trauma.

Earlier this year two other priests took their own lives after sexual misconduct allegations. The Rev. Donald A. Rooney, 48, shot himself to death in April in Ohio after being accused of molesting a young girl in 1980, and the Rev. Alfred J. Bietighofer, 64, of Bridgeport, Conn., committed suicide after allegations he sexually abused boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to the Boston Globe.

After Rooney's death, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that at least 16 Roman Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children, including 12 in the United States, killed themselves since 1986.

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