Problem Priests Uncollared

St. Louis Post-Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
September 4, 2003

ONE OF THE SORROWFUL mysteries about the Roman Catholic Church's handling of the priest sexual abuse scandal is how an institution that espouses powerful moral values can, at the same time, have such a blind spot about its own moral responsibilities.

In the trial last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court of the Rev. Bryan Kuchar, both of these conflicting aspects of the church's behavior were on prominent display. On the one hand, the Archdiocese of St. Louis allowed Kuchar to wear his black suit and Roman collar during his criminal trial on six counts of statutory sodomy. Kuchar also carried his breviary, the daily book of readings and prayers required of all Catholic priests, into the courtroom each day.

These outward symbols of Kuchar's office had also been on display in May at his first trial on these charges. That trial ended in a hung jury, and jurors afterward said they'd been impressed with his appearance and status as a priest. The prosecution learned its lesson for the second trial, calling one of Kuchar's fellow priests and a nun to testify against him.

Both the Rev. Kenneth Robert Smoot and Sister Lydia Ann Braun also wore their clerical garb, and both said Kuchar had admitted to them that the charges against him were true. That kind of courage and devotion to justice is also found in the Catholic Church.

Some jurors said that Father Smoot's and Sister Braun's testimony were not as critical in their deliberations as Kuchar's 20-minute taped confession to county police. Despite hearing Kuchar admitting on tape having had oral and anal sex with a 14-year-old boy, the jury convicted him on only three of six counts, recommending that he serve one year in jail on each count. Judge John Ross will decide in November whether the sentences will be served consecutively or concurrently. If it's the latter, Kuchar could become eligible for release in nine months.

Judge Ross should require the maximum possible jail time. Indeed, it's unfortunate that the jury didn't choose prison time for Kuchar. The rape of a 14-year-old by a grown man is the kind of felony that deserves prison time. There are men serving 30 years in prison for similar crimes.

Still, the fact that a Missouri jury voted to convict a Catholic priest at all marks something of a milestone. Within the church, priests have a special station, but not before the law. That collar marks someone special, but rape is rape, no matter what kind of collar the rapist wears.


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