Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Priest cases upset faithful

But most say abuse is societal, not church problem

By Cindy Schroeder,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Northern Kentucky Catholics contacted this week are upset that their church allowed religious leaders accused of sexual misconduct with minors to stay on the job.

        But most also say it hasn't shaken their faith.

        On Tuesday, local Catholics reacted to the Diocese of Covington's disclosure that three of its 110 priests remain on assignment in the 89,000-member diocese despite evidence of sexual misconduct involving teen-agers.

        In a written statement released Monday, church officials said that they notified “civil authorities” in accordance with Kentucky law, and that experts had determined that the priests accused of the misconduct “do not pose a current risk.”

        “It's not a Catholic problem,” said Ed Vogt, 65, of Villa Hills. “It's not a priest problem. It's a societal problem.”

        In recent weeks, Catholic church officials throughout the country — including Cincinnati and Covington — have dealt with allegations that priests accused of sexual misconduct involving teen-agers are still serving in priestly roles.

        The situation prompted the Boston Archdiocese to ask last week in its official newspaper whether the Catholic Church should drop its requirement that priests be celibate.

        While the recent disclosures are “unfortunate,” Fred Espenscheid, a member of St. Therese Church in Southgate, said he still “very much respects the priesthood and the Catholic Church.”

        “This isn't going to change my faith anymore than a baseball player who had done similar things would dampen my interest in the game of baseball,” he said.

        Mr. Espenscheid said he doesn't think that doing away with the celibacy requirement for priests is the answer.

        “Every day in the news, there's a happily married man coaching kids or working in the Boy Scouts who's accused of (sexual misconduct),” said the 51-year-old father of three grown children. “There are pedophiles in every part of society.”

        Mr. Vogt agreed.

        But Irene Howard, 78, of Covington, says that the church needs to drop its celibacy requirement for priests.

        “I just am very upset that these bishops are covering up,” Mrs. Howard said. “I think that's so wrong. I think they should eliminate celibacy and do it in a hurry. They'd have a lot more priests, and they could be a lot more selective.”

        The great-grandmother described herself as a believer in the Roman Catholic faith, but added she doesn't believe her church should cover up for pedophiles.

        Larry Klein, an Erlanger father of seven, described pedophile priests as “bad examples of Catholicism,” and said child molesters can be found in all walks of life.

        “But I don't think anybody has the luxury of breaking the law, especially when there are juvenile victims involved,” said Mr. Klein, 45.

        A decade ago, the Diocese of Covington was confronted with one of the most notorious cases of priest sexual abuse.

        Earl Bierman, a former Northern Kentucky priest and high school teacher, received a 20-year prison sentence in 1993 after pleading guilty to 25 molestation charges involving six adolescent boys in the 1960s and '70s. Church records later released for a civil trial showed there were dozens of victims.

        As a 12-year-old freshman at Covington Latin School in 1968, Mr. Klein recalled Mr. Bierman used “extremely foul” language in health class. The ex-priest also took youths to his parents' home in Bellevue to play games, but his parents were never home, Mr. Klein said.

        “Like any population, the Catholic Church is going to have people who have problems,” Mr. Klein said. “But it just seems the people in charge should have taken care of the problem. They should have turned these priests over to authorities.”


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