St. Joseph Priest on Leave Amid Woman's Claim

By Mike Goens
September 25, 2002

Florence - The pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church has asked to be placed on administrative leave while Catholic officials look into a claim that he touched a woman inappropriately more than 25 years ago.

A formal complaint has not been filed against Father Kevin Cooke, nor is he the subject of a criminal investigation.

Bishop David Foley issued a statement to members of St. Joseph Church last week indicating that the Diocese of Birmingham will be looking into the allegation. He reiterated that "we should not judge these matters before the inquiry is complete."

"We don't want to do anything to hurt the father's reputation, but we still will do a thorough appraisal," Foley said. "We're not going to cover up anything, and we're going to be as open as possible.

"At the same time, all a priest or any Christian minister has is his reputation. Father's whole life has been priesthood, and he has been a very fine priest based on everything I know. This is a very hard time for Father Cooke, and I have asked for people to remember him and his family in their prayers."

The bishop said he has asked Cooke not to comment on the allegation during the inquiry.

Foley said an evaluation procedure will follow the inquiry, then an appraisal of the facts will be done. A board will hear the facts and make a recommendation, but the bishop will make the final determination.

Foley said he hopes to conclude the process by Nov. 1.

"I have spoken to the lady and to father Cooke," he said. "Currently and throughout father's priesthood, no one has said any child has been hurt by him. While Father Kevin always has held that he would never harm any child, because of the seriousness of this issue, he has agreed to do whatever is required of him."

Cooke was assigned to the parish in July 2001.

Nationwide, the Catholic church has shown heightened sensitivity to allegations made about priests in the aftermath of numerous accusations of some priests sexually abusing children.

Foley gave few details of the accusation against Cooke. He said a woman, who is now in her 40s, has said a seminarian touched her inappropriately when she was 14. Her story appeared on a video presentation for church ministers.

He said Cooke was not mentioned by name in the video. However, she revealed his name to Monsignor Paul Rohling on Aug. 23. Foley met with the woman Sept. 1.

Foley said there are some discrepancies that must be resolved as part of the inquiry process. He hopes to resolve the issue quickly and fairly.

"We're hoping this will turn out happily for everyone involved," he said. "We have a process in place. We will let the process work."

Cooke appears to have solid support from the church.

Derick Franck, co-chairman of parish counsel, said Cooke will remain in the church's prayers.

"From the parish counsel perspective, we want him back," Franck said. "He is an excellent man and an excellent priest. We all think very highly of father Kevin. We're behind him 100 percent, and we remain hopeful he will be cleared soon and resume his duties."


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