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  Parishioners Asked to Forgive GP Priest
Bishop Tells Members That Policy on Reporting Sex Misconduct Works

By Christy A. Robinson
The Dallas Morning News [Grand Prairie TX]
February 7, 2005

GRAND PRAIRIE Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann, in an address laced with tears, asked parishioners in Grand Prairie on Sunday to forgive their priest who four days earlier was arrested on charges of child pornography possession.

The bishop stood before the standing-room-only congregation at Immaculate Conception Church to announce the allegations against the Rev. Matthew Bagert and deliver words of comfort.

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"It's with profound sadness that I address these words to you," he said before stating the accusations against Father Bagert, 36. "We all know this is a federal offense. This is in the hands of the Grand Prairie police."

He publicly thanked the church's associate pastor, the Rev. Jesus Belmontes, who alerted the Dallas Catholic Diocese of his suspicions, and added that it's proof the diocese's reporting procedures with regard to sexual misconduct are working.

He also told parishioners a crowd of varied ages and ethnicities that their priest had been suspended pending the outcome of the police investigation.

Emotion broke the bishop's normally reserved demeanor as parishioners listened intently.

"All of this pains me very much," he said before pausing a few moments to cry.

"I have no answer to this situation," he said, his voice breaking. "Only that we're all human beings, including your priest, and subject to temptation and sin like everyone else."

Bishop Grahmann instructed the congregation on how to respond to the news about Father Bagert, likening fallen Christians to the prodigal son.

"When one fails, we also believe in forgiveness," he said. "I ask that you open your arms and welcome him back. That's what Jesus would have done."

If the allegations against Father Bagert are verified, national church policy apparently would prohibit him from serving in ministry again. The policy's definition of abuse covers "behavior by which an adult uses a minor as an object of sexual gratification," even if there is no physical contact or force.

In December, Father Belmontes saw an image of a nude boy on Father Bagert's office computer, according to police arrest affidavits.

Grand Prairie police seized Father Bagert's computer, videotapes and printed material Jan. 31 and found sexually explicit images of nude boys. They arrested him Wednesday. He was released on $20,000 bail.

Father Bagert, who had been pastor of the church since 2001, has been a staunch supporter of Bishop Grahmann, having helped run a petition drive supporting him in 2003. That campaign successfully countered one started by parishioners who criticized the bishop's handling of sex-abuse cases and called on him to resign.

The Dallas Diocese and its insurers have paid tens of millions of dollars in recent years to settle abuse cover-up claims. About 10 of its priests have been exposed as abusers and removed from ministry; two have been sentenced to prison.

According to the diocese's Web site, average Sunday attendance at Immaculate Conception is more than 1,500. The church, which also runs a kindergarten through eighth-grade school, was established in 1918.

 
 

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