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  At Least 5 Priests Removed in Region

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News
June 29, 2003

The clergy sex abuse scandal has thinned the ranks of veteran priests in the Catholic Diocese of Erie since early 2002.

More than a year after the scandal exploded nationwide, an Erie Times-News investigation has found that at least five priests connected to the 13-county Erie diocese were removed or resigned from the ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct, mostly involving minors.

The Times-News has also found that a sixth priest who left the ministry has been accused of sexual misconduct involving minors. The Times-News has been unable to determine whether that priest was removed or resigned because of those allegations.

Five of the six priests departed sometime after late February 2002. The other priest was suspended from ministry in another diocese four years ago.

Of the six priests, the Times-News has found that:

* Three priests — the Revs. Robert F. Bower, Chester J. Gawronski and Thomas E. Smith — were removed or resigned in connection to conduct regarding minors. The Erie Times-News previously reported on the cases of Bower and Gawronski.

* A fourth priest, the Rev. William F. Presley, now of Lancaster, was removed in July 2002 in connection with an allegation of improper sexual conduct with a 20-year-old male student at the University of Notre Dame 28 years ago.

* The fifth priest, the Rev. Daniel Taylor, was suspended from active ministry in the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., in 1999, because of allegations of child abuse made against him when he was previously a priest in the Diocese of Erie.

* In the case of the sixth priest, the Erie Times-News has learned that an Erie lawyer is in talks with the diocese over the allegations against the priest. The lawyer said he represents three men, all formerly of Erie, who allege the priest's conduct with them was inappropriate.

The lawyer said the talks with the diocese are over "an appropriate resolution" to the matter.

The Erie Times-News is not naming the priest in this report because the exact reason he left the ministry could not be determined.

The Times-News also has found that a total of nine diocesan priests in the Erie diocese left the ministry in the past year for reasons other than marriage or death. The 235-priest diocese no longer listed those nine priests in its official directory for 2002-03. The nine include Bower, Gawronski, Presley, Smith and the priest who is the subject of the talks between the diocese and the Erie lawyer.

Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman confirmed that any priest who no longer appears in the directory is out of the ministry.

But citing his policy of nondisclosure of priest personnel matters, Trautman refused to comment on the cases of the nine priests. He said in written correspondence with the Erie Times-News that he has no plans to release the names of priests "who are no longer in ministry."

"If an individual priest's name no longer appears in the diocesan directory, it is because that priest is no longer in ministry," Trautman wrote to the Erie Times-News. "However, there are a number of reasons why individual priests are no longer in the ministry, not only because of sexual abuse of minors."

Trautman declined to comment even on the status of the priests whose names had been disclosed publicly in other forums. One of those priests is Taylor, whose name and the reasons for his suspension were included in a statement the Diocese of Tucson released in June 2002.

Not in the directory

Of the nine diocesan priests no longer in the directory, the Erie Times-News attempted to contact each of the five whose reasons for leaving the ministry have not been made public. They include the priest who is the subject of the talks between the Erie lawyer and the diocese.

Two of those five priests, including the priest who is the subject of talks, could not be reached for comment. Those two are no longer living at the residences listed for them in previous diocesan directories, and people at those residences said they did not know how to reach the priests.

Another priest did not respond to a letter sent to his most recent known address.

A fourth priest, visited at his apartment in Erie, said he was too busy to talk. He did not respond to further inquiries.

The fifth priest declined to comment on the reason he left the ministry.

"It is diocesan business," he said.

The most detailed comment Trautman has made on the number of priests he removed because of the clergy abuse scandal came on April 10, 2002. Trautman told the Erie Times-News that, at that time, he had removed "a couple of priests" because of sexual misconduct with minors. He also said the diocese had reached financial settlements with some victims of abuse, but he said the total amount was less than $100,000 at that point.

Trautman has repeatedly said all of the allegations of abuse involve incidents that occurred before he was named bishop of Erie in 1990. He also said, with the concurrence of Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk, that all of the incidents are too old to be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.

The five cases

The following is a synopsis of the cases of five priests who left the ministry because of allegations relating to sexual misconduct.

* Thomas E. Smith, 62. He was removed sometime around March 18, 2002, according to a letter Trautman wrote to the family of an Erie man who alleged Smith abused him as a boy in the late 1960s.

Smith could not be reached for comment.

* Chester J. Gawronski, 54. A family in Saegertown confirmed to the Erie Times-News that Trautman removed Gawronski from the ministry on Feb. 24, 2002, because of allegations of abuse against Gawronski stemming from incidents in the late 1970s. Trautman later acknowledged that he removed Gawronski.

Gawronski could not be reached for comment.

* Robert F. Bower, 70. He resigned from the ministry on April 16, 2002, in connection to his 1999 arrest on charges he possessed child pornography on his personal computer. A problem with how the police handled the computer evidence against Bower led prosecutors to drop the charges.

Bower has declined comment.

* William F. Presley, who is in his early 70s. The Catholic Diocese of Erie removed his priestly faculties in July 2002 after allegations prompted the diocese to conduct an investigation, according to a diocesan news release dated April 23 of this year. "At the conclusion of that investigation," the news release said, Trautman "removed the priest's faculties to preach, to celebrate any of the church's sacraments, including a public Mass, or wear clerical garb."

Presley was accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with a 20-year-old male student while Presley was on a temporary assignment at the University of Notre Dame 28 years ago, according to the diocesan news release and accounts in the South Bend Tribune, which first reported the case. The Erie diocese has provided counseling to the man making the allegation, according to the diocese's news release. The Erie diocese in its statement said the priest is retired.

The Erie diocese has never named Presley directly, although the news release details the reasons for his removal and was issued in response to inquiries about his status. The Times-News confirmed Presley was the subject of the news release.

The Erie Times-News contacted Presley. He denied abusing the student and said he has not been removed from the ministry.

"I was never removed from any ministry," he said. "Not one word of it is true. None of it."

* Daniel Taylor, 55. The Diocese of Tucson detailed his case in a June 2002 news release, which is posted on the diocesan Web site. The release includes the names of 15 removed priests. Taylor's entry reads:

"Taylor was suspended in 1999 after the diocese was made aware by the Diocese of Erie of allegations of child abuse against Rev. Taylor related to his service in that diocese. Rev. Taylor came to the Diocese of Tucson in 1981 and again in 1984 as a priest of the Diocese of Erie.

"He became a priest of the Diocese of Tucson in 1992. The diocese is not aware of any allegation of child abuse against Rev. Taylor related to his service in the Diocese of Tucson. Rev. Taylor is 55 years old."

Taylor could not be reached for comment.

Contact: ed.palattella@timesnews.com

 
 

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