Man Accuses Priest of Solicitation
By Stephen J. Lee
Duluth News Tribune [Alaska]
May 10, 2005
A man who lived most of his life in northern Minnesota, much of it as a Catholic priest and as an educator, was removed this week from a parish in Alaska after a man alleged the priest solicited sex from him in return for giving him construction work at the church.
The Archdiocese of Anchorage announced that the Rev. Robert Bester, about 75, reported to his superiors that a man had accused him of inappropriate behavior, according to the Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror.
Bester was born in Duluth and spent part of his career here in the late 1990s as the hospital priest for St. Mary's Medical Center.
On Wednesday, Bester was put on leave from the Alaska parish while a church panel investigates the allegations. Two days later, the alleged victim served the Alaskan archdiocese with a lawsuit.
The accuser, Fred May, cooperated with a local television station in Anchorage in taping conversations secretly with Bester in which the priest talked about graphic sexual acts. He also spoke of being "Dracula," and of engaging in "combat" with angels.
May also displayed several checks written to him by Bester and said the priest had urged him to have sex with him in return for getting construction work at the church.
Bester is the son of the late Earl Bester, a well-known Steelworkers union organizer.
He received a master's degree in English literature from Michigan State University, then a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught college and high school English and served as deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.
He served as a priest in the Crookston diocese, and was an administrator of Catholic and public schools in the region.
Bester was superintendent of schools in Warroad, Minn., while still a priest in the Crookston diocese on leave from call in the late 1980s. In 1990, he helped found the celebrated -- for a time -- Global Studies Program while he was principal at LaFayette High School, the public school in Red Lake Falls, Minn.
Bester was a priest in the Crookston diocese from 1979 until 1991, said Monsignor Roger Grundhaus, vicar general of the diocese. Bester "never did anything illegal" and, as far as he knew, no allegations of sexual misconduct were made against Bester, Grundhaus said.
Bester worked for St. Mary's Medical Center from 1995 to 1999, said Beth Olson, SMDC spokeswoman. He provided sacraments to Catholic patients and said Mass in the hospital chapel, she said.
Olson said Bester told them he was leaving SMDC so he could retire, she said.
Olson said for legal reasons she is not allowed to publicly discuss whether any allegations of misconduct were lodged against Bester or any past hospital employee.
The Rev. Dale Nau, Duluth Roman Catholic Diocese spokesman, said Bester was never a priest in the Duluth diocese, so he never served a parish. Bester worked for St. Mary's with the permission of the Crookston bishop,Nau said.
Nau only bumped into Bester on a couple of occasions at the hospital. He said he seemed to be a pleasant man, but didn't really know him.
In a 1997 Duluth News Tribune Christmas Day story, Bester said he'd lived at St. Ann's Residence for about a year. He also served as priest to about 170 seniors in the assisted-living home. He spent his days praying for the sick and comforting families in crisis.
St. Ann's administrator David Kern said he knew of no complaints about Bester. But Kern also said Bester was there before he starting working there in 1998, so he didn't really know anything about him.
The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald reported the Global Studies program was Bester's "brainchild," and he was the director in 1990, bringing in dozens of students each year from several countries to Red Lake Falls.
Bester lived in the dorm with the international students, said Cheryl Matzke, an English teacher at the high school who worked in the program. While there were rumors about the way the students lived, with partying and fighting reported, Bester was a fair and hardworking principal, Matzke said. She never saw him act inappropriately with students.
Bester told the News Tribune in 1997 that he was a man who understands the struggle between the everyday world and a search for the divine. He said he used to spend money on expensive presents before entering the priesthood, but now he focuses on God's gifts, such as time and presence.
Bester said he was a flawed person who had learned late in life to relinquish most earthly pleasures.
"The call to priesthood is very peculiar. God sets it in your mind and it doesn't let go. I said to God a number of times, 'Stop nagging. Call somebody else.' He wouldn't listen," Bester said. "It reached the point where I said yes, but even the yes isn't easy for me."
Shortly after coming to the Crookston diocese in 1979, Bester was named principal at Mount St. Benedict High School in Crookston for about two years, until it closed in 1982, said Brad and Laura Brekken, who attended the school in the early 1980s.
"He was very well liked by the students and everything," Laura Brekken said. "He was very outgoing. And strict, to a point, too."
Bester also taught religion classes at "The Mount," and was known for bringing in many Latin American students to board at the school, Brad Brekken said.
Neither knew of any improper behavior by Bester while he was principal.
UNUSUAL JOB HISTORY
It's unusual, however, that Bester was allowed to take secular jobs while a priest in the diocese, rather than serving as a priest. Especially in a diocese with a shortage of priests.
It's also unusual for a priest to leave one diocese and go to another, as he did from Crookston, to Duluth, to Anchorage.
By the late 1990s, Bester was given an assignment as chaplain at St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth, an Anchorage television station reported. But he had no parish assignment. Bishop Roger Schwietz was head of the Duluth diocese at the time and Bester apparently knew him because of growing up in Duluth, Grundhaus said.
When Schwietz was appointed archbishop in Anchorage in 2001, Bester went there and was appointed to serve in parishes in Kodiak and then Anchorage.