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  Gregory Removes Priest over Allegations from 1970s
Review Board Will Weigh Abuse Accusations against Pastor in Sesser, Ill.

By Paul Hampel And Norm Parish
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
May 2, 2002

Less than a week after returning from the Vatican, where he urged Pope John Paul II to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward priests who abuse children, Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory on Wednesday removed a priest in his own diocese who is accused of molesting a minor in the 1970s in New Jersey.

Following the recommendation of a Belleville diocesan review board, Gregory removed the Rev. Edward Balestrieri as pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Sesser, Ill., about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis.

The action came a week after the Trenton, N.J., Diocese relayed allegations of sexual abuse of a minor while Balestrieri was stationed in Asbury Park, N.J., around 1975.

Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement Wednesday, "Each time we face an allegation of this nature, it is a difficult and traumatic event for the victim or victims, for their families, for our parishes, for the local community and for the priests and their families."

He added, "I will continue to act in the most forthright manner possible in responding to these cases where children may be at risk."

Balestrieri, 71, is the first priest in the Belleville Diocese accused since the sex-abuse scandal broke nationwide in early March, and the first priest removed in the diocese since 13 priests were ousted over abuse allegations in the mid-1990s.

The Rev. Kenneth J. York, chancellor of the Belleville Diocese, said the temporary removal means the diocese's Fitness Review Board had received credible evidence but would continue to investigate before recommending final action to the bishop.

York said church officials had sequestered Balestrieri at an undisclosed location. The priest is cooperating with the diocese but would not speak publicly, York said.

A longtime member of the parish said Wednesday that Balestrieri called her last week to break the news that he was being removed and to deny the allegations.

"He told my husband and me that he was being accused of something that was untrue," said Elaine Spotanski, 72, whose husband, Leroy, is a member of the parish board. "And we believe him. It's just a claim, with no proof. But the claim hurts just the same."

Spotanski said Balestrieri came to St. Mary's in 1985. She said the priest established the town's first food pantry for the poor and quickly set about revitalizing the parish.

"Our membership had fallen off, and one of the first things Father did was to visit parishioners who had dropped out. He convinced a lot of them to return to the church," Spotanski said.

Gregory has appointed the Rev. William P. McGhee to serve as temporary parochial administrator at St. Mary's, which serves about 200 parishioners in Franklin County, Ill., including the rural towns of Ina, Christopher, Valier and Waltonville.

On Wednesday, the parishioners were formally notified of Balestrieri's removal and of the abuse allegations in a letter from Gregory.

"This is one of the most difficult letters that I could possibly write to you and, no doubt, one of the most distressful letters that you might receive from your bishop," the letter states.

Gregory's letter adds that "we have no allegations of such misconduct with minors during (Balestrieri's) ministry as a priest of the Diocese of Belleville."

The Franklin County prosecutor's office said it had received no complaints against the priest.

The allegations came from the Order of the Most Holy Trinity in New Jersey, where Balestrieri was assigned until the mid-1980s, said Steven Emory, a spokesman for the Trenton Diocese.

Bishop John Smith, who heads the Trenton Diocese, recently turned over i nformation about allegations involving several priests, including Balestrieri, to prosecutors. The Monmouth County prosecutor would not comment on the case.

Balestrieri was ordained in 1959. He was honored in 1968 in New Jersey for his work with youth groups.

The Belleville Diocese established the review board in 1993 at the start of a two-year string of cases that led to 13 Roman Catholic priests and a church deacon being stripped of their ministries over charges of sexual abuse.

The seven member board is composed of four lay Catholics who don't work for the diocese and three priests who review whether a priest is fit for public ministry.

York, the diocese chancellor, said Balestrieri will not be allowed to have contact with children, cannot celebrate Mass publicly or wear a Roman collar.

Gregory was first notified of the allegations April 23, while he was in Rome for a special meeting. The pope had called Gregory, another bishop and 12 American cardinals there to discuss the widening scandal among U.S. priests.

York said he had made the call to Gregory. "I sensed that (Gregory) was very tired and saddened," York said. "He wanted to make sure policy was being followed. And it was."

 
 

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