Police: Priest Beaten to Death
Abuse Victim: Not What I Would Have Wished for Him

By Andy Mead
Herald-Leader [Lexington KY]
December 7, 2003

A retired Catholic priest and convicted sex offender found dead in his home Friday died from "multiple blunt-force injuries," the Fayette County Coroner's Office said yesterday.

Joseph J. Pilger, 78, apparently was killed sometime between Wednesday and Friday, a police report said.

But officials offered nothing else on the death of the man whom neighbors on Pleasant Pointe Drive knew as "Father Joe."

One of Pilger's victims, now an adult living in Florida, said yesterday he had heard from family members who still live in Lexington about the retired priest's death.

"It's not what I would have wished for him," said Dan Willett, 57, a convenience-store manager in Orlando. "My feelings are that, unfortunately, he didn't make his peace with God before it was too late."

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington issued a statement yesterday expressing shock at the death.

"I am deeply saddened by the tragic and apparently violent death of Father Pilger," Lexington Bishop Ronald W. Gainer said in the statement.

"We will pray for the repose of his soul."

The statement also said that, in accordance with a written 2001 request from Pilger, the diocese would not participate in funeral arrangements, and would refrain from making further comments.

Tom Shaughnessy, a spokesman for the diocese, said arrangements apparently were being handled by Pilger's attorney. He did not know the attorney's name.

Brucie Hooks, a Morganfield attorney who represented Pilger in one of the sex-abuse cases, could not be reached yesterday.

Ben Sylvester Hein, Pilger's landlord, told police he entered Pilger's home at 260 Pleasant Pointe Drive on Friday afternoon and found him dead, according to a police report.

Pilger's 7-year-old beagle was lying near his body. Karen Owens, Pilger's next-door neighbor, said friends of hers had temporarily taken the dog.

After identifying the body, police called the Cathedral of Christ the King asking if someone wanted to offer last rites, Shaughnessy said.

Father Patrick Fitzsimons, an associate priest, "apparently did go perform some sort of blessing of the body," Shaughnessy said.

Lexington police Sgt. Scott May, the duty officer in charge last night, said he knew little of the Pilger investigation.

Neighbors said Friday that a young man in his late teens apparently had been living with the retired priest for a few weeks.

One neighbor said Pilger's car -- state records show it was a white 1999 Buick Century -- was missing.

Pilger pleaded guilty in 1995 to abusing three brothers and their cousin in the late 1960s when he was their priest in Morganfield in Western Kentucky.

The victims were younger than 15 at the time and served as altar boys. Pilger received five years' probation in that case.

Earlier this year, Pilger was named in a sex-abuse lawsuit against the dioceses of Lexington and Covington. In that suit, Willett, the Florida man, said Pilger abused him in the late 1950s at St. Paul's School in Lexington.

That suit has been settled, but Willett described it as "a coerced settlement," in which the diocese of Covington said Willett would lose if the case went to court because of the statute of limitations.

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