Knoth's Life, and Future, Still Enigma
Ex-Loyola President Vanished after Resigning over Abuse Case

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
October 7, 2004

A year after his abrupt resignation over allegations of sexual abuse of a minor 18 years ago, the whereabouts of former Loyola University President Bernard Knoth remain an enigma to dozens of former colleagues, while the process for deciding his future as a Catholic priest is murky and uncertain, even to church legal experts.

Knoth, 55, has not been seen on campus since the morning of Oct. 7, 2003, when the gregarious Jesuit who had led the university for eight years stunned a small group of assembled vice presidents with news of his forced resignation.

He said he was resigning because after months of inquiry his Jesuit superior, the Rev. Richard Baumann, had found sufficient reason to believe that Knoth, despite his denials, had sexually abused a youth when Knoth was a high school principal in Indianapolis in 1986.

With that brief acknowledgment, Knoth left campus, ahead of a mass e-mail that disclosed the news to the rest of the campus and the city.

A year later, the shock has worn off, but the puzzlement continues.

Part centers on Knoth's largely unknown personal situation. But there's also the uncertainty and confusion around the little-understood internal legal process that might resolve the allegation that derailed his career as a Jesuit priest and educator.

Recent conversations with faculty and administrators on the Uptown campus turned up no one who acknowledged any communication with Knoth in the past year. Nor did any of them know someone in touch with Knoth.

The Rev. Ladislas Orsy, a canon lawyer at Georgetown University, said he asked a number of Knoth's former colleagues there last week if they had heard anything of Knoth since his departure.

"They said they knew nothing. And these were people who knew him personally," Orsy said.

A commercial database lists Knoth's current residence in a city on Florida's Gulf Coast. But Knoth's phone number in that city is no longer in service.

There was no response to an inquiry sent to an e-mail address believed to be his.

Knoth was immediately succeeded by an interim president, the Rev. William Byron, who served out the school year. Loyola will inaugurate a permanent replacement, the Rev. Kevin Wildes, on Oct. 15.

Rumors abound

While the academic life of the 5,700-student liberal arts school continued apace last year, Knoth's sudden disappearance and the near-vacuum of information he left behind created an environment still receptive to rumor.

On Sept. 27, Joseph Hebert, a member of the music faculty, startled an audience at a Loyola concert by saying he understood Knoth's accuser had recanted the charge and the entire allegation against Knoth had collapsed.

Hebert later acknowledged in an interview that his source for the rumor was the campus grapevine, and that it was not authoritative.

In fact, "I haven't heard anything like that," said the Rev. James Gschwend, the Jesuit colleague in Knoth's home Chicago province who was charged last year with conducting the order's inquiry into the allegation.

Both Knoth and the still-unnamed accuser were able to testify during that inquiry, he said. Its results were reviewed by an eight-member board consisting of five laypeople, two priests and a nun. They recommended to Baumann that Knoth be relieved at least temporarily of his priestly faculties, the order said at the time.

Under the terms of new procedures worked out after the sexual-abuse scandals of 2002, Knoth for now must live as a civilian, forbidden to wear the clerical collar, identify himself as a priest, or marry or bury friends and family.

Although Knoth asked for a leave of absence from the order last year, Gschwend said he knows Knoth is in touch with some old friends in the order.

Gschwend said he remains charged with seeing to it that Knoth is cared for in his civilian life. "I keep trying to make sure he is," Gschwend said. "When any of our men are on sabbatical for any reason, they still belong to us, and we care for them in every possible way."

He declined to confirm Knoth's whereabouts, or say whether he is employed.

He said he did not know the status of Knoth's case, or much about the process for handling it.

Different procedures

At the time the new procedures were being worked out, church officials often explained that accused priests relieved of duty could ask for church trials to clear their names and resume their careers.

It now appears more complicated than that -- especially in the case of members of religious orders such as the Jesuits, Orsy said.

In cases in which diocesan priests are accused of sexual abuse of minors, bishops must send their local case files to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Orsy and several canon lawyers said.

It is the congregation that decides how to proceed -- usually sending the case back to the local bishop for disposition, they said. The Vatican may instruct the local bishop to call a church trial or, if conditions warrant, use some administrative method for handling the case.

But religious orders such as the Jesuits are different, said Orsy, who is among a number of critics beginning to publicly dissect what they say are substantive flaws in the new church procedures as they apply to both diocesan priests and members of religious orders.

After the bishops crafted their procedures, the heads of the church's various religious orders in the United States met among themselves and developed procedures that were roughly analogous, but accounted for the differences between governance of a diocese and a religious community.

Although he is one of the most prominent Jesuit canon lawyers in the country, "I don't know" how cases such as Knoth's are to proceed inside his order, Orsy said.

Orsy said he knows the Chicago Jesuits are supposed to send cases like Knoth's to Rome. Rome may elect to send them back for local disposition, but Orsy said he did not know how that disposition would come.

The problem is that there is a significant difference between the ways religious orders and dioceses settle certain kinds of disputes, he said.

Most or all of the nation's 195 dioceses have standing church courts, he said. For decades, those courts have dealt almost exclusively with handling pleas for marriage annulments. They are just now beginning to turn to hearing sex-abuse cases arriving back from Rome, Orsy said.

But religious orders do not handle marriage annulments, and so did not develop standing court systems, he said.

"But in our internal procedures, religious orders do not have this organization of courts, these tribunals that handle these charges in a very formal way," he said. "As far as I know, they're all handled administratively.

"It's very messy. There's a lack of clarity, a lack of proper procedure, a lack of proper personnel. They have rules, but no machinery to handle those rules."

Although Knoth asked for a leave of absence from the order last year, Gschwend said he did not know whether Knoth and his current provincial, the Rev. Edward Schmidt, have talked about his future.

"I think that someone who experiences a shock like this and asks for time off, a year is not an awful lot. I don't know whether he and the provincial have talked about it going forward.

"I just don't know."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.