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  Priest's Case Raises Questions

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News (PA)
April 17, 2002

Sally Beres said she went to the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Erie 20 years ago to express her concerns about gay pornography she found in the mail of her boss, the Rev. Robert F. Bower, a priest at the Newman Center on the campus of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

Two days after she came forward, Beres was fired from her job as a secretary at the Newman Center.

"I was devastated," Beres said. "Not only financially, but psychologically."

Bower was promoted to be pastor of another parish in 1993. He no longer holds that post, but he continues to say Mass, hear confessions and perform other priestly duties on an as-needed basis at churches such as the Newman Center, whose parishioners include Edinboro students. Bower, 69, has been affiliated with the center since 1965.

Bower's status as an active priest also wasn't changed by his 1999 arrest on felony charges that he possessed child pornography on his personal computer. One series of images showed a man sodomizing a 5-year-old boy.

The Erie County District Attorney's Office dropped those charges because of a problem with the way state police handled the computer evidence after they had seen the images on Bower's computer. Even with that foul-up, however, no one disputed that child pornography had been found on Bower's computer.

Bower's lawyer said the priest had received pornographic e-mails accidentally. Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman said in an interview a week ago that he believed Bower's explanation.

Trautman said he did not review the public documents in the case, including the criminal complaint against Bower. Trautman also said he did not censure Bower.

"Nothing was presented to me in any way that would say there is a problem with pedophile behavior," Trautman said. He said he understood the police had dropped the charges against Bower because of problems with the handling of the evidence, but he also said the courts had "acquitted" Bower in the pornography case.

"You are comfortable with him interacting with children?" Trautman was asked during the interview.

"Yes," he replied.

Beres never accused Bower of molesting children. And the state police investigation includes no such allegations.

Bower's case, however, provides a look at how the Catholic Diocese of Erie, in two separate incidents nearly two decades apart, handled concerns about the sexual leanings of one of its priests, especially regarding minors.

The incidents left Bower an active priest a man, as Trautman described him, who "is a free, law-abiding citizen, who can vote, who has legal standing in the community."

"I don't have anything against the man," Trautman said. He said he never heard of Beres' allegations, which Beres said she made to Trautman's predecessor, Bishop Michael Murphy. Murphy is now retired.

Beres' experiences left her disillusioned. She said she came forward to get Bower help, but instead lost her job and became so disenchanted with the Catholic Church that she, born and raised a Roman Catholic, stopped going to Mass for seven years.

"It changed my life completely," Beres said.

Bower still lives in the 300 block of Darrow Road in Edinboro, in a house adjacent to the Newman Center. He would not comment for this story. He referred all questions to Trautman.

"I want out of it," he said before hanging up the telephone on a reporter.

Beres' discovery

Darlene "Sally" Beres, now 53 and living in Waterford, started working at the Newman Center in the late 1970s. She was the secretary for the center's chaplain and its associate chaplain, Bower. She cleaned the church's chalices and the priests' garments. She went to Mass daily.

She became friendly with Bower. She called him "very charismatic" and extremely personable. She also described him as a messy person who frequently would leave his mail on her desk.

Beres said she found some of that mail in the spring of 1982. She said she found gay pornographic magazines, sexually explicit gay letters and other materials. Beres recalled the materials being addressed to various aliases, such as R.F. Bovel, and being sent to P.O. Box 568 Bower's post office box in Edinboro.

"I was shocked," Beres said.

She said none of the materials pictured small children or resembled anything that immediately struck her as child pornography. But she said the men in the magazines appeared to be teenagers or in their early 20s. And she said one of the letters appeared to be in response to an advertisement that had been placed in one of the magazines.

"I started to realize what was going on," Beres said.

She contacted two friends Ann Caro of Edinboro and another woman who asked that her name not be used because she said she feared she could lose her job. Caro said she had concerns of her own in addition to what Beres told her.

Caro said one of her sons, who was in eighth grade at the time, had told her he and his friends had come across "dirty pictures" in Bower's office when they had been working at the Newman Center in the late 1970s. Caro said she initially did not believe her son.

Beres and the other women wanted to do something about the materials Beres found.

In separate interviews, they said they first discussed the pornography Beres discovered with a diocesan official, Monsignor Lawrence Antoun, who died in 1986. "I said ... get this man some help, get him out of a college town, where there are too many young people," Beres said of her conversation with Antoun. "He said, 'You've got to meet with the bishop.'"

The women said they did.

The women and the bishop

Beres, Caro and the other woman recalled meeting with then-Bishop Michael Murphy at his residence at West Ninth and Sassafras streets sometime in July or August of 1982. They each recalled the decor of the house the woodwork, the tapestries and the table settings in the dining room and said Murphy kept them waiting.

When they finally went into Murphy's office, the women said, they sat in a row in front of the bishop's desk. They said Beres went to hand Murphy the materials she had found in Bower's office, but that Murphy did not take them.

"He refused to even touch them," Beres said. "He refused to even look at them. He just said, 'We cannot let this get out.'"

Caro and the other woman at the meeting confirmed Beres' account.

"He refused to look at anything," Caro recalled. "He lectured us on love and what it means to love."

"This meeting with Bishop Murphy did absolutely, positively take place," Caro said.

The other woman was adamant the meeting took place as well.

"It was almost as if this material had been sent to him accidentally," she said of Murphy's reaction about Bower.

Murphy said he does not remember the meeting, which would have happened shortly after he became bishop of Erie on July 16, 1982. Murphy, 86, retired at age 75 and lives at the rectory next to St. Patrick Catholic Church on East Fourth Street.

Murphy said he received no complaints about Bower during his tenure, which ended when Trautman was named bishop of Erie in June 1990. Told of what the women said about the meeting with him, Murphy said he could remember nothing of the sort.

"I'm sure I would recall something," he said.

The firing

Beres said she remembers the meeting as clearly as what happened two days later. She said she was fired from her $200-a-week job as secretary at the Newman Center.

She said she had received no indication she would lose her job. But two days after the meeting with Murphy, she said, the Rev. Richard Sullivan, now a monsignor, walked in and said, "We no longer need your services."

Sullivan, now the pastor of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Erie, was a top official in the diocese's campus ministry in 1982. He said diocesan officials asked him to dismiss Beres based on concerns about her ability to work under a new priest who was coming in to head the Newman Center.

Sullivan said he could not recall the names of the diocesan officials. He said he knew nothing about the pornography Beres said she found until a reporter told him about it recently.

"It is a total revelation to me," Sullivan said.

"I was very upset," Beres said of her dismissal. "All I wanted to do was help."

Beres said she tried to get unemployment compensation. She said the diocese denied her benefits, and a labor referee ruled against her on technical grounds. Bower argued against her at the hearing, she said. The state Department of Labor and Industry routinely destroys records of unemployment hearings every three years.

Beres said she considered suing on grounds of wrongful dismissal. She said she visited a lawyer in Edinboro, Dennis Kuftic, told him what happened with Bower and waited for Kuftic's response. She said Kuftic told her he would not take the case, and urged her not to pursue a claim against the diocese.

A suit against the Catholic Church, Beres recalled Kuftic telling her, would "ruin your life."

Kuftic, however, said he doesn't "ever remember getting a complaint about Father Bower or pornography" in the manner Beres described. He said he does remember meeting with Beres.

"I vaguely remember talking to somebody like that," he said. "But it has been too long."

Kuftic would become involved in another dispute that involved Bower. He represented Bower when he was charged with possessing the child pornography in 1999.

Beres also would become involved in that case. For 17 years, she saved in her attic the pornography she said she found in Bower's office in 1999. In the days after Bower's arrest in 1999, she presented those materials to someone else the state police trooper investigating the child pornography case.

Child pornography charges

The criminal case against Bower started on Feb. 13, 1999. Rick Miller, a technician at Hometown Computers in Erie, called police after finding child pornography on Bower's computer.

Bower had brought in his computer for service because, Miller said in an interview at the time, Bower complained it wasn't running as fast as it should. Miller located the problem: The computer's hard drive was full. He set out to free space by looking in the computer's recycle bin.

There, Miller said, he found child pornography. The file that caused him to call police, he said, was called "Dad-baby." It contained three photo images before, during and after of an adult man sodomizing a 5-year-old boy.

The state police trooper, Lee Formichella, now a corporal, arrested Bower on March 10, 1999, and charged him with the three felony counts related to child pornography. He alleged the images were "acquired" between 1996 and 1998, according to the criminal complaint.

"The images consisted of numerous examples of adults in various states of nudity and/or other sexual activity," Formichella wrote in the criminal complaint, "but I also discovered numerous images of what are clearly depictions of children engaged in nudity, oral sex, anal sex and vaginal sex. Most of the images are males."

Formichella cited the "Dad-baby" file. He also said he had interviewed Bower.

"He admitted to downloading the images from the Internet and admitted to knowing they were illegal," Formichella wrote. "The defendant stated, 'I was 60 and feeling my oats,' alluding to sexual gratification as the purpose of maintaining and possessing the materials."

A week after he charged Bower, Formichella met with Sally Beres, Ann Caro and the other woman who had become concerned over the pornography Beres said she found in Bower's office in 1982. Beres contacted him, Formichella said in a recent interview.

Beres said she gave Formichella the materials she had kept for 17 years. She also said she told Formichella she had been fired after meeting with Bishop Murphy.

Formichella confirmed his discussion with Beres. He also said he took the materials, photocopied them and made the information part of the investigation. He said the original documents likely were destroyed after the charges were dismissed, but the photocopies likely exist in an investigative file.

"If I recall correctly," Formichella said of the materials, "I took them into evidence."

Charges dismissed


>Bower maintained his innocence as the case against him slowly proceeded through Erie County Court. Kuftic, his lawyer, characterized Bower as a victim of technology.

He said Bower did not download the child pornography from the Internet, but that others sent him the images unsolicited. And Kuftic said Bower was confused by the questions state police asked him.

"Father Bower was not into collecting child porn," Kuftic said at the time. "He wasn't trying to get it. He didn't want to get it. He didn't know it was on his computer."

A jury never had a chance to decide the case. The Erie County District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against Bower in February 2001. Officials said state police had contaminated the evidence by logging on to Bower's computer before making a secure copy of what was on Bower's hard drive when police arrested him.

District Attorney Brad Foulk, who took office in January 2000, made the decision to dismiss the case. He had inherited the Bower case from his predecessor, District Attorney Joe Conti.

Foulk at the time said the lack of a duplicate of the hard drive contents meant the prosecution lacked the original, uncorrupted evidence to put before a jury at trial. He said jurors would not be able to determine what originally was on Bower's computer and how it got there. By duplicating the contents of the hard drive and loading the information onto another computer, Foulk said, the police could have examined that information without altering the original evidence.

"As a result of the manner in which it was conducted," Foulk said of the police's preliminary investigation, "it has been determined by this office after consulting with the FBI and their crime lab that we are unable to determine when these items were deleted, how they were deleted and how they were received."

Foulk acknowledged that police alleged that Bower admitted to downloading the pornography. Foulk said the prosecution still needed the evidence to corroborate Bower's statements.

"Without the physical evidence to bring in the courtroom, our hands were tied," he said.

Bower was a free man. At the time of his arrest, he was pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Cambridge Springs. Bishop Trautman had promoted him in 1993. Trautman replaced Bower as pastor following his arrest. He also placed Bower on administrative leave until the criminal case was over.

"We welcome the news that charges against Father Bower have been dropped," the Catholic Diocese of Erie said in a statement when the District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges. "When he was charged, Father Bower, according to diocesan policy, was removed from his ministerial assignment pending the outcome of legal proceedings. A short time later, Monsignor Lawrence Speice was appointed pastor of St. Anthony Parish, Cambridge Springs, where Father Bower had been pastor.

"Father Bower underwent counseling and was given a positive evaluation, which cleared him for limited ministry in the diocese. Only recently, although not an official assignment, he occasionally celebrated Mass as needed at St. Anne parish, Wilcox, Elk County. That was the extent of his ministry.

"Father Bower has been living in a private residence in Edinboro. In time, the diocese will determine his future in ministry."

Bower returned to saying Mass and performing other priestly functions at the Newman Center. He also is a member of what the diocese calls its "supply ministry." He assists at different parishes when needed.

Bower "was not given limited duties," Trautman said. "He is doing the same things he was doing before, which is helping out."

Trautman and Bower

Although the prosecution dismissed the charges against Bower, the dispute was over the handling of the evidence rather than the evidence itself. Even Kuftic, Bower's lawyer, never denied child pornography was found on Bower's computer. He maintained Bower said the pornography was unsolicited.

Bishop Trautman based his decision not to punish Bower on the dismissal of the charges, he said in the interview with the Erie Times-News a week ago. "We have to be fair," he said. "Until we have a proven accusation, we don't implement the policy."

Trautman said he had never seen the criminal complaint against Bower. It contains what the state police allege was Bower's admission he obtained the child pornography. The complaint is on file at the Erie County Courthouse along with other records in the Bower case.

"How would I come to get them?" Trautman said of the public records.

He said he had no victim coming forward to lodge allegations against Bower in the child pornography case. And he said he conducted an investigation of his own by talking to Bower and having others in the diocese talk to Bower.

"I think we did what was prudent at the time," Trautman said. "I am satisfied with the explanations he gave me. ... That is as far as I am going to go."

Trautman during the interview said the police had dropped the charges against Bower, but he also said the criminal justice system had acquitted him.

"We followed the American justice system. The American justice system acquitted him," Trautman said. "That has to be my judgment. I am left with that reality."

When reminded that a jury never found Bower innocent, Trautman responded, "He wasn't found guilty."

"He is a priest in good standing," Trautman said of Bower. "I have no other allegations against him. I can't do anything. I think the past is the past at this point in terms of the bishop's intervention in this case."

Foulk declined comment.

Trautman and the women

Sally Beres said she went to only one bishop, Murphy, with her concerns about Bower. Trautman said he had never heard of Beres and knew nothing about the meeting she and the other women said they had with Murphy in 1982.

Trautman was told of Beres' allegations that she was fired two days after going to see Murphy. He was also told what Sullivan, the priest who fired Beres, said of the reasons behind the dismissal.

"The timing seems problematic," Trautman said. "I don't see how you can flesh it out, other than to talk to the principals, trying to ascertain what took place. But this lady has never even come to me. I've never met her."

Beres said she gave up on going to the church about Bower after she was fired. She said she came forward again, in 1999, this time to the state police, only to see the charges against Bower dropped.

"I have nothing to hide," Beres said. "I didn't do anything wrong. I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I tried to fix it. It didn't work."

Beres said she needed years to find another permanent job she enjoyed. Returning to church also took a while. She said she finally went back to Mass in 1989, seven years after she was fired. She said a former priest at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in McKean coaxed her to return to services there.

"It is not the institution," she said of her relationship with Catholicism. "It's the faith."

Sally Beres saw the Rev. Robert F. Bower recently. She went to a penance service at St. Xavier shortly before Christmas. She said she saw Bower among the priests waiting to hear confessions.

Beres said she went to another priest.

Contact: ed.palattella@timesnews.com

 
 

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