Abuse Scandal Casts Pall over
Local Franciscan Order
Plaintiffs Call Action against Clerics Inadequate
By Peter Smith
August 26, 2002
Priests and friars of the Conventual Franciscan order have worked in Louisville
and Southern Indiana for more than 100 years, serving parishes and the
poor in the tradition of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.
But in recent months, the Franciscans' locally based Province of Our Lady
of Consolation has been involved in the scandal of past sexual abuse by
clerics, as allegations have come to light against four members with Louisville
"We as a religious community are a family," said Brother Bob
Baxter, spokesman for the eight-state province, based in Mount St. Francis,
Ind. "When you think what some of your brothers may have done, it's
devastating to us, too."
Fifteen lawsuits filed in Jefferson Circuit Court have accused two deceased
Franciscan priests and a former religious brother of sexual abuse from
the 1950s into the 1970s. The accusations range from the brother allegedly
molesting boys he met at a Louisville parish to allegations of a priest
and teacher at Bellarmine College molesting friends' daughters as young
as age 5.
The lawsuits originally named only the Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville
as a defendant - part of a 183-suit caseload against the archdiocese alleging
abuse by 29 clerics, teachers and a volunteer coach.
But William McMurry, a lawyer for most of the plaintiffs, has begun naming
the Franciscan province as well, accusing its leaders of covering up for
abusive clerics. Two parents of plaintiffs said in interviews they alerted
Franciscan or archdiocesan officials at the time of the alleged abuse.
Plaintiffs say officials with the archdiocese and the Franciscan province
knew of the abuse and should have taken stronger action, including disciplining
the priests and reporting the cases to civil authorities.
"They both are responsible," Kathleen Willenbrink Kearney said
of the archdiocese and the Franciscan order in an interview. Kearney,
one of five women alleging abuse by the late Rev. Kevin Cole - a Conventual
Franciscan priest - in the 1960s and 1970s, wants to ensure that in the
future, church officials not only remove abusers from the priesthood but
report incidents of abuse to police. "They're crimes and they should
be reported," she said.
Other Franciscans accused are the late Rev. Daniel Emerine (six suits)
and Brother Francis Dominic (four suits), who left the order in 1989.
The Franciscans say they do not know Dominic's whereabouts, and he could
not be reached for comment.
While not named in any lawsuits, a fourth Franciscan, the Rev. Ron Bohl,
was removed as pastor of a Louisville parish in June for a single allegation
of sexual misconduct in 1986 in Ohio.
"Our hearts are broken," said the Rev. David Lenz, who as vicar
for the province is its second-ranking official. "No one is grieving
more than the victims. We as friars sincerely apologize for any sexual
abuse of a minor."
The Franciscans said the Rev. Peter Damian, minister provincial for the
province and its top-ranking member, was unavailable for comment last
The Franciscans are offering counseling to victims and are considering
other ideas for helping victims in the abuse crisis, Lenz said.
Though Louisville has the only public cases involving the province, other
people have contacted the Conventual Franciscans this year directly rather
than through lawsuits, alleging past abuse by four or five clerics in
other states, Lenz said. And three Franciscans, already restricted in
their ministries for past allegations, were removed entirely from ministry
after bishops strengthened diocesan sanctions on abusive priests in June.
Those sanctions remove priests from any sort of ministry for even a single
incident of sexual abuse.
Bohl and the three unnamed Franciscans removed from ministry are living
under close supervision in separate larger Franciscan communities, Baxter
said. One is living at Mount St. Francis, but Baxter would not identify
The growing focus on the Conventual Franciscans comes as leaders of Catholic
religious orders adopted a policy in Philadelphia this month that removes
abusers from ministry with children but allows them to stay in their orders
under supervision and do things such as office work.
The policy, endorsed by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, is less
sweeping than that adopted by Roman Catholic bishops in Dallas.
Conference President Canice Connors - a Conventual Franciscan from an
East Coast province who spent years overseeing treatment of priests who
had committed sexual abuse - said bishops were "paralyzed in remorse
and shame," failing to differentiate between serial predators and
priests who may have committed a single act of abuse but reformed and
became "trusted, effective moral leaders."
Victims' advocates have criticized Connors' stance as being too lenient.
"I believe that he lost a wonderful opportunity to show the most
important people in the drama, the victims and survivors, that the religious
superiors had not forgotten that they indeed are priests and not primarily
bosses worried about their assets," said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a former
Vatican Embassy canon lawyer who says bishops ignored a 1985 report he
helped write that warned of a looming sexual-abuse crisis.
One-third of the nation's 45,191 Catholic priests are members of religious
Because bishops decide who can minister in their dioceses, their ban on
all past abusers applies to priests in religious orders as well. But priests
who are members of orders, such as Franciscans or Dominicans, can remain
in their orders.
"That doesn't mean that the person is ever again ministering around
young people," Baxter said. "But that does mean you don't throw
them out on the street and say: 'You're on your own.' "
Baxter and Lenz said they shared some of Connors' misgivings about zero
tolerance, citing the case of Bohl, who resigned in June as pastor of
Incarnation Church at the request of Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly.
Bohl had been accused in 1986 of making an unwanted sexual advance to
a minor at a church in Carey, Ohio.
Police investigated but brought no charges, and Bohl underwent months
of therapy before returning to service, Baxter said, adding that Bohl
has not faced any other accusations. Carey Police Chief Dennis Yingling
said Thursday that his department has no files on such a case.
"He was and we still believe is suitable to return to ministry and
is not a danger to anybody," Baxter said. The archbishop "requested
that we remove Ron. We did. If we were left to our own devices, we would
not have removed him. We believe he was very suitable, very capable, and
a very spiritual man."
Bohl, who has no assignment, did not respond to a letter seeking comment.
He is now living at a Franciscan residence that Baxter declined to identify.
Lenz said "clerical arrogance," is at the root of the abuse
crisis and Franciscans need to return to the reforming spirit of the order's
12th-century founder, St. Francis.
Franciscans have split into several orders since the time of Francis but
share his dedication to the poor and the environment, Lenz said.
Conventual Franciscans, with about 4,000 members worldwide and 600 in
the United States, are distinguished from others by their black robes
and their emphasis on community living.
Conventual Franciscans, who came to the United States in 1852, established
themselves in the Louisville area in the late 19th century.
The Consolation province currently has 133 members, with about dozen in
Louisville, 22 at Mount St. Francis and others assigned to mission work
as far away as an AIDS orphanage in Zambia, Baxter said.
The Conventual Franciscans operate three parishes in Louisville - Incarnation,
St. Paul and St. Anthony - as well as St. Anthony of Padua in Clarksville,
Baxter said Franciscans try to be flexible in adapting to a region's needs
- for example, establishing a 400-acre nature preserve at Mount St. Francis,
serving as a buffer to increased development in Floyd County, and assigning
clerics to work with the area's growing Hispanic community.
While parishes run by religious orders must follow archdiocesan policies
and answer to Kelly, "it is common that the spirituality of that
order becomes one of the qualities and characteristics of that congregation,"
said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the
Local Franciscan parishes, for example, typically have outreaches to the
needy and partnerships with Franciscan mission churches, Lenz said. For
example, members of one Louisville parish go on short-term mission trips
to a partner church in Central America, he said.
In an era where many are calling for an increased role for parishioners
to reform the scandal-plagued church, Lenz said the Franciscans have developed
a pattern for lay involvement.
For example, the order started the Franciscan Shelter House to serve meals
to the needy in Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood in 1980 and has since
turned it over to a board of laypeople.
"Part of what we do is empower the laity to work in our ministries
and take them over," Lenz said.