FRANKFORT — Franklin County Commonwealth's Attorney Larry Cleveland said Monday that he elected to accept a former Lexington pastor's plea on reduced charges in a sex-abuse case mainly because of the trauma for the victims if they had been required to testify at a trial.
The Rev. Joseph Muench, 59, once pastor at Lexington's Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary parish, could spend as little as a year in prison under a plea agreement reached last week.
Muench was accused of "subjecting another person to sexual contact by forcible compulsion," according to an indictment returned in October. One victim in the case was older than 18 and another was 16 when the incidents occurred, according to court filings.
"They were willing to testify, but they didn't want their identity to be made public," Cleveland said. "These guys have had a lot of emotional problems; they've been in counseling; they've been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of this.
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"I was quite seriously concerned that we were going to reopen some old wounds and do more harm than good with these victims. But now we do have a conviction in a 24-year-old case in which the victims didn't wish to testify."
Muench originally was charged with two counts of first-degree sexual abuse. He entered an Alford plea in Franklin Circuit Court last week to amended charges of first-degree unlawful imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit sexual abuse in the first degree.
An Alford plea does not admit guilt but acknowledges that enough evidence exists for a conviction. Sentencing is scheduled for May 21.
The charges stem from incidents in the early 1980s, when Muench (pronounced "minch") was associate pastor at Good Shepherd parish in Frankfort.
According to the plea agreement, Cleveland is recommending that Muench serve one year on the unlawful imprisonment count and a year on the criminal attempt count, with the sentences to run concurrently. Thus, Muench would serve one year if the court accepts the agreement.
Prosecutors made no recommendation on probation. The agreement states that Muench "will not ever in the future be employed or act in a position of trust or authority with respect to any minor."
Muench could have faced 10 years in prison under the original charges.
Meanwhile, Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Diocese of Lexington sent an e-mail to all priests, deacons and parish directors in the diocese Monday, explaining how an Alford plea works and urging them to pray for all victims of sexual abuse and all priests, including Muench.
The case surfaced last summer after the Lexington diocese received a letter from Louisville lawyers representing three men who made allegations against Muench. Only two unnamed men were mentioned in Muench's indictment.
The diocese then conducted an internal investigation and forwarded its findings to Cleveland's office.