Disgraced Priest Dead at 73

By Paul A. Long
Kentucky Post [Kentucky]
June 14, 2005

Earl Bierman, the Roman Catholic priest whose admitted sexual assaults on children helped spiral the Covington Diocese into a painful, 15-year-long examination of its history of sexual abuse and misconduct, died Monday.

Bierman, 73, died at the nursing-care facility at the Kentucky State Reformatory. An Oldham County coroner pronounced him dead at 1:40 p.m., said Corrections Department spokeswoman Lisa Lamb.

Although no cause of death was given, Bierman was known to have been diagnosed with cancer.

Lamb did not know where Bierman's body was taken.

He had been serving a 20-year sentence, imposed in 1993, for sexually abusing boys in Mason, Kenton, and Campbell counties from the early 1960s through 1976. The Corrections Department recently asked the state Parole Board to consider giving him an early medical release because of his declining health.

With credit for good behavior, he was scheduled to be released next year.

"This is the end of a very tragic life," said Campbell Commonwealth Attorney Jack Porter, who as Lou Ball's assistant in the early 1990s helped negotiate a three-county plea agreement with Bierman.

"Earl Bierman inflicted so much pain on so many young children and their families. ... I believe he will now be punished more than any punishment he could have received on earth."

Bierman was the first priest accused in Northern Kentucky during the church's modern sexual-abuse crisis, and his massive number of crimes often meant he was its personification.

But he also was known as an energetic, committed, and creative teacher with a deep and wide intellect, as evidenced by the four master's degrees he earned. His colleagues also praised his ability to preach and hear confessions.

His secret life burst into public view in November 1992, when a former priest, Jerome "Jerry" Junker, filed a criminal complaint with Kentucky State Police, Junker said Bierman had abused him in the early to mid-1970s, when Bierman was a teacher and counselor and Junker a student at Covington Latin School.

By the time of the complaint, Bierman was retired and living at the Catholic Center in Erlanger.

Church officials then acknowledged they were aware Bierman had been sexually abusing minors in the 1970s and into the 1980s, and that he had received treatment and was reassigned to pastoral duties in churches afterward.

But they didn't admit what later became known - that Bierman had been accused of sexually abusing young men as early as 1961. Then-Bishop Richard Ackerman concluded that Bierman had committed "several unnatural acts of immorality" with minors in April 1961.

Five weeks later, Ackerman said he had documented that Bierman had "again solicited one of the boys and handled him in an impure manner" in the dining room at Newport Catholic High School.

Bierman was sent off to a treatment center in New Mexico. When he returned, he was reassigned to pastoral duties, eventually becoming a teacher at St. Patrick High School in Maysville and Covington Latin - despite Ackerman's misgivings.

"He is a problem, and I am afraid he will remain such for a long time to come," Ackerman wrote to his counterpart in Santa Fe, N.M.

But Junker's going public had opened the dam. Others followed, including a boy at the treatment center Bierman went to in New Mexico.

In Covington, lawsuits and criminal charges quickly followed. Eventually, at least 61 people came forward with accusations against Bierman.

On May 5, 1993, Bierman pleaded guilty to 28 charges that he sexually abused teen-age boys in three counties. Then-Campbell Circuit Judge William Wehr sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

One civil case went to trial, and the jury ordered the church to pay $737,500 to a Fort Thomas man Bierman had abused in the 1970s.

Still, Bierman continued to downplay his actions. In a 1994 letter to The Kentucky Post, Bierman complained that his crimes had blotted out his positive achievements.

"I have been unselfish and caring for the most part in all my 35 years of ministry," he wrote.

"For most of the time I was involved in activities of a valued endeavor with long lapses of sexual activity. . . . For 19 years I taught high school to over 1,000 students. For 12 years, I taught philosophy in college without a single problem. . . . My priestly life was not all blemishes."

In 1997, the state Parole Board refused to grant him parole - indeed, it ordered him to serve out his entire sentence - partly because he showed no remorse for his crimes and seemed more concerned about himself than his victims.

"You say the right words . . . the buzzwords," board member Ted Kuster told Bierman. "You seem to keep worrying about what happens to yourself. I don't see as much remorse as I expected from a man of the cloth."