A pair of attorneys will review priest personnel files and reports of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Diocese of Lexington since it was formed in 1988, according to Bishop John Stowe.
The attorneys — Allison Connelly and Andrew Sparks — will be free to report findings to civil authorities while they compile a comprehensive report for the diocese, according to an announcement in the diocese newsletter.
“Because of the history of abuse in the Church, there is not much trust in what the bishops self report; I hope that having independent attorneys conduct a review for the diocese can help with the credibility of such a report,” Stowe said Monday. “If these attorneys find that we in the Catholic Diocese of Lexington have been deficient in our reporting or response to allegations of abuse, I want to be able to correct that.”
Stowe added the the church is “striving for greater transparency to assure people that accusations of abuse are taken with utmost seriousness.” The diocese serves 50 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
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The review comes after former Lexington bishop Ronald Gainer was accused of protecting abusive Pennsylvania priests. A state attorney general and grand jury investigation found the Catholic church in the state covered up abuse by more than 300 priests involving more than 1,000 identifiable victims. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently launched its own investigation.
Following the Lexington review, which is scheduled to begin in early January, Stowe will publish the findings, according to the announcement in Crossroads, a publication distributed by the diocese.
Sparks is an attorney with Dickinson Wright PLLC and spent 15 years as an assistant U.S. attorney (a federal prosecutor) in the Eastern District of Kentucky. Connelly is a former state public defender who is the founding director of the University of Kentucky Legal Clinic.
The two attorneys were selected based on recommendations from people in the legal community and their reputations, Stowe said.
Connelly said she has no previous relationship with the Lexington Diocese. She wanted Sparks to work with her on the review because she knew immediately the job would take two people.
“It’s important because I do believe this diocese wants total transparency and has given us all files and any avenues we want to investigate further,” she said. “If we find something was mishandled, we can forward it without interference to the prosecutor.”
Because there are more than 100 priests whose files will be examined, Connelly said she has no idea how long the review will take. She said the examination will be thorough; she and Sparks will make any needed recommendations to the church.
Stowe said he expects “that the reviewers will establish that accusations of abuse have been appropriately dealt with.”
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear said in September he endorsed a proposed law that would let him use a special grand jury to investigate crimes that cross county lines, according to the Associated Press. The law is similar to the one adopted in Pennsylvania that was used by the attorney general. A wave of similar investigations has occurred in other states, and some dioceses have released the names of accused priests.
Gainer dealt with several cases of sexual abuse during his time as bishop of the Lexington diocese from 2003 to 2014. In 2003, a priest was reinstated even though he had been accused of sexually abusing a boy in Eastern Kentucky in the early 1970s.
A diocesan committee in Lexington decided the claim against the Rev. William G. Poole was “not credible,” Gainer said at the time. A separate investigation, conducted by the diocese of Covington, resulted in a six-figure settlement to Poole’s accuser.
Several lawsuits regarding abuse were filed against Rev. William Fedders, who Gainer permanently barred from public ministry in 2004. Gainer did not say what Fedders did to merit the lifetime ban until eight months later.
In a third case, Gainer received “incontrovertible evidence” in 2003 that a priest had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old-girl. The Lexington Diocese did not publicly acknowledge until 2006 that it believed the allegations and had punished the Rev. Stephen F. Gallenstein.
Stowe said to the best of his knowledge, all of the abuse cases in the Lexington Diocese have been publicized.