Kentucky

Former Lexington bishop’s diocese disputes report that he protected abusive priests

In this 2013 file photo, then Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington led a special Mass for newly elected Pope Francis at Cathedral of Christ the King in  Lexington.
In this 2013 file photo, then Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington led a special Mass for newly elected Pope Francis at Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington. Herald-Leader

A former Lexington bishop acted “appropriately and definitively” to remove from church two abusive priests, according to new diocesan remarks disputing a Pennsylvania grand jury account of his role in covering up clergy sexual misconduct.

Ronald Gainer, now the leader of the Harrisburg, Penn. diocese, is among the church leaders accused by a grand jury of protecting more than 300 “predator priests” in six dioceses who sexually abused more than 1,000 identifiable victims, many children, over seven decades. The grand jury report said Gainer asked the Vatican in 2014 — the year he took over — not to expel two priests who had been suspended for sexual abuse.

“The status of both of these men was not addressed for many years prior to Bishop Gainer coming to Harrisburg,” the new statement from Gainer’s diocese said. “Bishop Gainer acted appropriately and definitively to get these men out of the Church as soon as possible.”

Gainer had experience with several sexual abuse cases from his days as bishop of Lexington’s diocese from 2003 to 2014. In some of those cases, Gainer and the diocese did not release information about abusive priests for months or years.

One of the Pennsylvania priests Gainer wrote the Vatican about was Joseph M. Pease, who was accused of abusing a boy from 1971 to 1972 when the victim was 13 to 15 years old, the grand jury report states. Pease admitted his guilt decades later and retired as a priest in 2003.

The other, Rev. James Beeman, was accused of sexually abusing multiple girls from the 1950s to 1970s, according to the grand jury report. One of the girls was raped by Beeman when she was 7, 13, and again when she was pregnant at 19 years old. He also admitted his guilt.

For both Beeman and Pease, who had been suspended from ministry, Gainer told the Vatican that their scandals had been “sufficiently repaired.” About Pease, Gainer wrote, “I am not requesting at this time that any judicial trial or administrative process be initiated that may lead to his dismissal from the clerical state,” according to the grand jury report. He recommended that Pease and Beeman live out their days in prayer and penance, according to the grand jury.

“That means that these men would be permanently barred from presenting themselves as priests, conducting any ministry, or dressing as a priest,” the Harrisburg diocese stated Wednesday night. “To be clear, at the time of the 2014 letters, both men were already under constraints; the letter was intended to make the penalties permanent. The form letter is regrettably not written well and does not accurately represent the action that was taken. Unlike recent attempts to portray this as a cover-up, this was the only means of resolving their canonical status.”

A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released August 14 says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses.

The recommendation was made to resolve their status because Pease was 83 years old and suffering from diminished mental capacity and Beeman was 88 and in declining health before his 2016 death, the Harrisburg diocese stated Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Gainer publicly announced the names of 71 Harrisburg clergy who had been accused of sexual misconduct. He ordered their names - and the names of previous bishops — be removed from any position of honor throughout the diocese, the Harrisburg statement said. The grand jury noted Gainer’s recent announcement when stating “today we sense some progress is being made” within the Pennsylvania dioceses.

The church’s new website, www.youthprotectionhbg.com, contains information on how to report child sexual abuse and information on how the church has confronted the issue.

Gainer dealt differently with several cases of sexual abuse during his time as bishop of the Lexington diocese between 2003 and 2014.

In late 2003, a priest who was twice charged with sex-related offenses at Jacobson Park was reinstated by the Lexington diocese, despite an allegation that he had sexually abused 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. But a separate investigation, conducted by the diocese of Covington, resulted in a six-figure settlement with Poole’s accuser in 2003.

“The diocese of Covington believed the individual’s allegations to be credible enough to support a request for financial assistance,” a spokesman for the Covington diocese said in early 2004.

However, Gainer said at the time he was convinced that Poole was falsely accused and that he posed no threat to young parishioners.

“If I thought there was risk to children from William Poole, I would not have restored his faculties at all,” Gainer said in early 2004.

In September 2004, Gainer permanently barred the Rev. William J. Fedders from public ministry, although a diocese spokesman said that no decisions had been made about the priest’s guilt or innocence.

About eight months later, with the Herald-Leader preparing to print a story about Fedders’ uncertain status, the diocese revealed its findings.

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.

But the Lexington diocese did not publicly acknowledge until 2006 that it believed the allegations and had punished the Rev. Stephen F. Gallenstein. Gainer prohibited Gallenstein from celebrating Mass, wearing clerical attire or calling himself “father.”

In 2009, the Rev. Joseph N. Muench was suspended from regular ministerial duties at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary after allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct as an associate pastor in Frankfort in the 1980s. At that time, Frankfort was part of the Covington diocese; the Lexington diocese was created in 1988.

In 2010, Muench pleaded to reduced charges in Frankfort. He was charged with two counts of first-degree sexual abuse but entered an Alford plea in Franklin Circuit Court to amended charges of unlawful imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit sexual abuse. In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that enough evidence exists for a conviction. Muench was sentenced to one year in jail.

Gainer said at the time of Muench’s sentencing: “I trust that the judge’s sentence is a just response to the charges that have been brought forward. This continues to be a sad and difficult time for the Catholic Church. As bishop, I am saddened and shamed by the ongoing revelations of abuse and the largely inadequate responses in the past.”

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