My Priest Tried to Kill Me

Newsweek [New York NY]

March 20, 2024

By Gregory Flannery

Father Earl Bierman used to tell people that, in 30 years as a teacher, I was the only student he ever threw out of class. It was because I argued with him about the Vietnam War.

Twenty years later, he tried to kill me.

The failed murder-suicide attempt shocked Greater Cincinnati. A Catholic priest caught on tape threatening to shoot a former student and then kill himself.

Echoes of Father Bierman’s demented voice can still be heard 30 years later in Catholic churches across the United States and beyond.

In 1992, child sexual abuse by priests was a new phenomenon. The blockbuster book Lead Us Not into Temptation by Jason Berry documented 400 cases of sexual abuse by priests in the United States.

The book didn’t surprise me. I knew a priest who had committed hundreds of such crimes all by himself.

Bierman had taught my health and religion classes at Covington Latin School from 1970-74.

On a picnic to introduce freshmen to the school, a senior took me aside and said: “You’re going to meet a priest named Father Earl. Everybody thinks he’s cool. Just don’t be alone with him.”

I knew Bierman closely for 20 years, but I was never alone with him. He never laid a hand on me. I later learned that two classmates had received the same warning about this “cool priest” on the same day I had.

They didn’t take it seriously, and they came to regret it.

Covington Latin School is a college-prep academy in Covington, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. Students skip the sixth and seventh grades and begin high school at age 11 or 12. I entered college at age 15.

In the 1970s, only boys attended the school. Bierman was a charming young priest who arranged feature films for the student body and organized field trips. This wasn’t long after Vatican II.

Calling a priest with his first name—Father Earl—was unconventional. But Bierman wanted us to call him Earl, just Earl. He was one of the boys.

Bierman hated communism and backed the Vietnam War, but he was a liturgical radical.

He wore pastel clerical shirts. He used banana bread for the Eucharist. At a school known for rigorous discipline—expulsions for “ungentlemanly conduct” and all—Bierman was an eccentric. All the boys loved him.

He bought five-pound tins of hard candy at the Army Surplus Store and passed it around, saying: “Here’s something socially acceptable for you to suck on.”

It was later proved in court that other teachers, his fellow priests, and even the bishops of the Diocese of Covington knew what Bierman was doing to boys at Latin School.

The clues were hard to miss. In his classroom, teaching 11- and 12-year-old boys, he delivered such lessons as:

“Ninety-percent of boys have homosexual experiences. When this happens to you, come see me and we can talk about it.”

“If you’re not growing pubic hair, come see me. I can get you testosterone shots.”

“The reason priests wear cassocks when they hear confessions is to hide their erections.”

When I was 15, Bierman took my best friend and me to see The Exorcist, a film that featured a young girl masturbating with a crucifix—edifying material for Catholic boys.

Years later, in 1992, I was working as a reporter for a small neighborhood weekly newspaper in Cincinnati. The Mount Washington Press was one of the last independent newspapers in the city, and it was pugnacious.

When we heard a rumor that a local priest was abusing boys, we chased it down.

It proved to be an easy catch. Catholic priests are highly educated men, each with graduate degrees. But in the early 1990s, their training did not include media relations.

I called the priest and asked about the rumors. He said: “I’m just very affectionate, and sometimes people misunderstand.”

We wouldn’t publish an unsubstantiated rumor, but a priest denying the rumor, on the record, was fair game. When the story ran, victims read it. They told police the priest had been more than “very affectionate,” and he went to jail.

And then I remembered Father Earl Bierman, a priest who moved from school to school, repeatedly reassigned without explanation. I called the chancery, responsible for supervising priests in the Diocese of Covington.

To my surprise, the same tactic worked again. I asked a direct question, and the chancellor gave me a direct answer.

“Father Earl Bierman has been molesting boys for decades,” I said, as though it were an established fact. “Why is he still a priest?”

All the chancellor had to do was hang up or deny knowledge of what I was asking. But he didn’t.

“There was treatment and everything else,” he said. “Do we never allow people to change?”

Those two sentences in our little neighborhood weekly set off a firestorm. They directly acknowledged that Bierman had sexually abused boys for years. After the article ran, 54 victims contacted police. Bierman was arrested.

Free on a $5,000 bond, he did something strange. He phoned one of his victims. Bierman had pronounced wedding vows while anally raping him as a 14-year-old boy.

With his mugshot on local TV stations, Bierman, a highly intelligent man with four Master’s degrees, including a Master of psychology and a Master of divinity, did something stupid.

His former victim now ran a small radio station in London, Kentucky. When Bierman called, the station owner turned on his tape recorder.

Bierman said he was going to buy a gun, kill me, the reporter who had caused all this trouble, and then kill himself. The man gave the recording to police.

I learned about the murder-suicide plot when Detective Robert Scott of the Kentucky State Police phoned my office and told me to be on the lookout and to make sure my children were safe.

I called their school and said that, if a priest showed up, they should not be allowed to go with him. The school secretary suspected a prank. This was a Catholic elementary school, after all.

Bierman tried to buy a gun in Newport, Kentucky, but the store owner recognized his face from the news and refused to sell to him. Police arrested Bierman at gunpoint later that day.

After investigators identified 71 victims, the priest copped a plea, admitting guilt on 27 counts of child sexual abuse. The legal troubles that followed went far beyond the 20-year prison sentence that he received.

Bierman was the star of what became the first-ever class-action lawsuit against a Catholic diocese in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church. The final settlement of $85 million included dozens of priests and hundreds of victims spanning decades.

Bad as Bierman’s crimes were—and they were grotesque, including using the secrets of confession to abuse boys and to arrange trysts—they were not the worst part of the story.

The Catholic priests and bishops of the Diocese of Covington had known about Bierman’s crimes—sins, in ecclesiastical lingo—since his very first days as a teacher in the early 1960s.

And they had kept notes. In fact, they knew these were more than “sins.” The leaders of the Catholic Church knew Bierman was committing crimes. In 1977 Bishop Richard Ackerman wrote about Bierman’s sexual abuse of a young boy.

“This was an ongoing affair with a boy who, because of this conduct, had a complete nervous breakdown which required hospitalization. Earl Bierman does not know this, but this incident would have, except for my intervention, brought him to prison.”

That and other incriminating documents were revealed when the court ordered the “secret archives” to be opened. Canon law requires every Catholic diocese in the world to maintain secret archives. In this case, the archives revealed a long history of priests molesting children and being sent to assignments where they did it again.

Bierman was one of many criminal priests in the history of his diocese, and Covington is one of hundreds of dioceses in the United States and thousands across the world.

Thirty years later, reports of priests and even bishops being arrested are almost as commonplace as mass shootings at schools. The horror seems to diminish with each new round.

The sex abuse scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, sending cardinals to prison, bankrupting dioceses, and purging the pews of the faithful, betrayed and bitter.

And 30 years later, after moving from denial to grudging apology to stiff-necked motions of reform, the church still refuses to face the fundamental cause of the scandal: The way the church recruits priests.

Here is the eligibility list: Only men, preferably young, willing to forswear normal relationships with women for the rest of their lives. No others need apply.

This leaves a severely limited pool of applicants: Some heterosexual men of heroic virtue, of whom the number is by definition limited; some homosexual men who are, according to Church teaching, “disoriented,” but who might practice celibacy, if they have heroic virtue; and some men who are sexually attracted to children.

If that’s the entire pool of applicants, the proportion who will be sex criminals inevitably will be higher than if it included married men or—dare it be said?—women as priests.

Until then, this problem will continue as it has for millennia. The only difference is that now people name it for what it is. A crime. And increasingly, people tell when priests hurt children.

That can only be the work of heaven.

Father Earl Bierman was not only my high-school teacher. He formed a prayer group that led me to enter the seminary.

When I later married, Bierman officiated my wedding. I had been led to believe that he had changed. I was lied to, as were many Catholics around the world who trusted the church to help—or at least not to victimize—children.

After Bierman was arrested for threatening to kill me, he was never again a free man. He died in prison in 2005, blaming me for a conspiracy to make money off the scandal.

My family experienced significant trauma, but I didn’t join the lawsuit, knowing it would taint my reporting. Bierman’s tombstone lists him as a priest, but he was defrocked before dying.

His legacy is one of intense personal suffering and institutional rot.

Thirty years later, the scandal has grown, as it will until the Catholic Church recognizes that its fundamental way of doing its job is misbegotten.

In the name of God and his children, stop looking for priests by barring sexually healthy men and women.

Gregory Flannery is a retired newspaper reporter and editor. His work has also appeared in Sojourners, In These Times and The Nation.

All views expressed are the author’s own.