Arrested Priest Tapped for Job
Buechlein Seeks Input from Members of 3 Rural Parishes

By Diana Penner and Rebecca Campbell
Indianapolis Star [Indiana]
May 26, 2004

A Catholic priest arrested a year ago on a charge of public indecency is in line to lead three rural churches, a proposal the archbishop of Indianapolis says is about forgiveness but which some criticize as reckless and insensitive.

In a letter to members of the three parishes, Archbisop Daniel M. Buechlein emphasizes that no final decision has been made on the appointment of the Rev. Ronald M. Ashmore as administrator and sacramental minister of the churches.

Buechlein said he wanted comments from the parishioners to be collected by the parish councils, which are to meet today with two priests involved in the staffing issue. The archbishop is in Rome for a meeting with Pope John Paul II; Buechlein said in the letter that he hopes to make a final decision in early June.

Ashmore, 59, was pastor of St. Margaret Mary Church in Terre Haute when he was arrested in May 2003 after reportedly soliciting an undercover Indiana State Police detective.

The veteran priest, who counseled Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh while he was in federal prison awaiting execution, was among 23 men arrested in a two-week sweep at a rest stop on I-70.

After Ashmore's arrest, Buechlein placed him on administrative leave. Ashmore remains on leave and declined comment except to say he was grateful for Buechlein's recommendation.

In his letter, Buechlein cites the date of Ashmore's arrest and the charge. Then he adds, "I want to be very clear that there has never been an allegation or a concern about Father Ashmore's behavior with children."

The Catholic Church has been reeling for several years because of cases of sexual abuse of children by priests who were often quietly transferred to other churches, where some continued to victimize children.

The May 11 letter was sent to parishioners of St. Maurice in Napoleon, Immaculate Conception in Millhousen and St. Denis/Jennings County in Westport. The churches are about 65 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The archbishop explicitly cites Ashmore's arrest and stresses that he wants to hear from parishioners before making his decision.

"I want to be sure that you know that on May 21, 2003, Father Ashmore was arrested for public indecency," Buechlein wrote. "He has now completed a six-month course of inpatient treatment, and it is the recommendation of the treatment center that he be returned to ministry."

A difficult position

The notification to parishioners places Ashmore in a difficult position, whether he is assigned to the post or not, said Geneva Tunny, who has been a member of St. Maurice since 1936.

"He knows the parish knows it," said Tunny, 90, Napoleon. "I'd like to see him get a job, maybe even up at the chancery or someplace, wherever they could give him work outside of a parish. As far as I'm concerned, I don't think he ought to (be assigned a parish). I think it'd be hard on him, too."

In Buechlein's absence, Monsignor Joseph Schaedel, vicar general of the archdiocese, is in charge. He declined comment, saying through spokeswoman Susan Borcherts that it would be inappropriate to speak to the media as no decision has been made and comments are still being sought from parishioners.

She would not say where Ashmore completed his inpatient treatment or elaborate on what that treatment involved.

"(Buechlein) is basing his recommendation on the treatment center," she said. No one from the archdiocese would elaborate because details involve Ashmore's medical information and are private, Borcherts said.

Ashmore and most of the other men arrested in the sweep last May took deals to avoid prosecution. In August, the Hendricks County prosecutor agreed to drop the charges if the men stayed away from rest stops in Indiana and Illinois for one year, were tested for sexually transmitted diseases and paid $260 in fines and costs.

An undercover detective said Ashmore was arrested after he told the officer he was cruising for sex and asked the detective to meet him behind a restroom. The detective said Ashmore then exposed himself.

In his letter, Buechlein asks parishioners to share their "candid thoughts" with their churches' pastoral councils, but also makes clear his own thinking about Ashmore, who was ordained in 1976, has been assigned to several Indianapolis churches and has taught at Scecina Memorial High School.

"Father Ashmore has, in fact, been a successful pastor, and I would like to give him a second chance," the archbishop wrote. "We are the Church, and being the Church is about forgiving and being forgiven."

The Rev. Harold L. Knueven, pastor of St. Mary parish in Greensburg, eight miles from Immaculate Conception, has known Ashmore professionally since his ordination and seconded the archbishop's counsel to church members.

Parishioners should "do what the priests do in confession -- forgive him," Knueven said. "Tell him to 'go and sin no more.' Forgiveness -- that's the mark of the Catholic."

A call for supervision

That assertion rankled David Clohessy, executive director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"I resent injecting the notion of forgiveness," said Clohessy, of St. Louis. "Because it's not about forgiveness. It's about safety."

He also said even if Ashmore is ready to return to work as a priest, it would be better if he were not in small, outlying churches where people might be more hesitant to report any transgressions.

"I think it would be more prudent to put him in a large parish with a senior pastor who can look over his shoulder," Clohessy said. "It kind of comes down to: Why take the risk?"

He also was not impressed that Buechlein cited Ashmore's arrest in the letter to parishioners.

"It's hard to give him credit for disclosing something that's already been in the newspaper," he said.

But the letter did encourage Lynette Herold, past president of the Indianapolis chapter of Call to Action, an independent organization of Catholics that agitates for change within the church.

Herold said she rarely finds cause to commend Buechlein. "But I appreciate the method of giving the people involved an opportunity for input."

Call Star reporter Diana Penner at (317) 444-6249.