Lay Catholics Say 'No', Bishops Say 'Yes'
To Gay Predator Priests

By Michael S. Rose
July 13, 2004

(WINONA, Minn.) -- Bishop Bernard Harrington has been receiving a lot of mail recently. Much of it complaints.

Parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Owatonna, Minnesota are up in arms about the controversial appointment of Fr. Edward F. McGrath as their new parish administrator. The 49-year-old priest was was arrested in May last year at St. Paul's Crosby Farm Park. According to reports in the Winona Daily News, McGrath was charged with fifth degree criminal sexual assault, which involves non-consensual sexual contact. In short, he groped the genitals of an undercover police officer during a park-wide sting operation.

(McGrath was later acquitted of the crime on a technicality, despite the fact that he not only admitted to the offense but also admitted to a longtime habit of frequenting public parks for sexual purposes.)

After the arrest, McGrath was immediately placed on leave of absence, and Bishop Harrington assured the public that "Father McGrath has been an excellent and much loved priest, serving the people of [the Winona] diocese well in both administrative and pastoral capacities."

In addition to serving as a pastor, McGrath was also judicial vicar for the Winona diocese, serving on the diocesan tribunal. The priest was sent to St. Luke's Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland - another scandal in itself - for six month's of psychological treatment.

According to a spokesman for the diocese, McGrath's sexual offense did not fall under the diocesan misconduct policy because the priest's conduct did not occur while he was "engaged in the mission of the Church."

That is not reassuring to some Catholics at McGrath's new parish. Since the appointment was announced two months ago, many St. Joseph parishoners have been asking Bishop Harrington to reconsider what they believe is an imprudent decision at best.

Despite the recent scandal of climate in the Church, Bishop Harrington is, thus far, unwilling to backtrack on his support of the predator priest. McGrath moved into his new position at the beginning of July and continues to enjoy diocesan support.

Mark Zepeda, one of the many who object to McGrath's presence at the Owatonna parish, pointed out that St. Joseph's was a particularly poor choice since "it is closer to the St. Paul park than it is to the seat of Bishop Harrington."

In a letter published in the Winona Daily News, Zepeda confirmed that the parish is deeply divided. "Many are planning to leave for other parishes and dioceses," he wrote. "The bishop has turned a deaf ear to their repeated pleas for him to reverse this decision."

Zepeda's reasoning is clear. He understands that McGrath is not a child abuser per se, but he says that he's not so much worried about the children of the parents being sexually abused as he is about them being spiritually harmed by his presence.

Other parishioners are deeply wounded by McGrath's appointment.

"My sense of trust in the Church's leadership has been shaken," said one parishioner on condition of anonymity. "I feel paralyzed by fear and deep mistrust for the Church as a result of the bishop's decision. In my bewilderment, I feel like 'a sheep without a shepherd'."

It is instructive to note, however, that not everyone at the Owatonna parish is upset by the appointment of a gay predator priest as parish administrator. According to Zepeda and others who plan to leave the parish and withhold their money from what they see as a dishonest diocesan administration, some parishioners believe the appointment of a gay predator priest is to be tolerated out of Christian charity. Judging from some letters of defense published in local Minnesota newspapers, some parishioners are happily understanding of McGrath's habitual sin. They have hot words only for those who object to McGrath's appointment - troublemakers.

McGrath's situation and Harrington's support of the gay predator priest is not without precedent. In an article last year, I warned that these park arrests have been extrememly common amongst the gay clergy in dioceses across the country. More and more of these sexual misconduct arrests will likely be made public, especially considering the climate of sexual abuse that has hamstrung the Catholic Church in the United States over the past two years.

Many will be scrutinizing how individual bishops react to news that one of their priests has been arrested in a park (or a public restroom or highway rest stop). What disturbs Catholics more than the sinful actions of the predator priests themselves is that many of the bishops are so ready and willing to pronounce the convicted sex offenders as "fit for ministry." Their "second-chance" philosophy may make sense with a milk man or postal worker - but not with a Catholic priest, who is charged with the solemn duty of being a spiritual leader.

Two other recent cases, fortunately, provide a sampling of how some bishops are now dealing with the re-assignment of convicted sex-offender priests.

Last July, Father Raymond Larger of Cincinnati pleaded no contest to sexual misconduct charges after he was arrested in a public park for his lewd and lascivious behavior toward an undercover male police officer. He was subsequently convicted, and given a 30-day suspended jail sentence and one year of unsupervised probation. He was also temporarily stripped of his priestly faculties and suspended by Cincinnati's Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk.

This summer, upon recommendation of the offending priest's psychologist (where have we heard that before?), Pilarczyk returned Larger to active ministry, but has thus far not given the gay predator priest a parish assignment. Larger resides at Cincinnati's cathedral, and according to the diocesean newspaper, the recently returned priest "will celebrate the sacraments as needed in parishes."

Whereas Harrington (along with other numerous other prelates) has taken a unapologettically imprudent tack, Pilarczyk has taken the compromise position. His priest is returned to ministry, but doesn't get an assignment.

Fortunately, there's a third way:

Fr. Ronald Ashmore, arrested last May for indecent exposure at a highway rest area, was recently back in the news in Indianapolis. Archbishop Daniel Buechlein considered re-assigning the priest to pastor three rural parishes in southeast Indiana. Prudently, the archbishop decided to consult with parishioners there.

After assessing the feedback, he concluded that Ashmore would probably not be successsful ministering to that community. "The parishes reported . . . that they were conflicted about -- and in some cases, objected to -- the possibility that Father Ashmore could serve them," Buechlein said in a written statement. "Because there is conflict and objection, I have concluded it would (be) very difficult, if not impossible, for the parishes to accept his ministry. Therefore, I will not make this assignment."

For now, Ashmore remians on paid administrative leave, and parishioners at the three parishes in rural Indiana (as well as countless others) are commending the bishop for bothering to seek their opinion in the matter and acting in a shepherdly prudent manner.


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