NEWS9 Special Assignment: Gary Zalenski a fight for his faith
By Jessica Guay
February 23, 2015
It's the story of a Steubenville Diocese Priest who was kicked out of the church after a lengthy investigation involving claims that he sexually assaulted a young female parishioner. Gary Zalenski was never charged in the decades-old case, and he was cleared by a grand jury. But the church never backed off its investigation and the accusation never stopped. Now a grown woman, the alleged victim continues to stand by her claims. For the first time since the church removed Zalenski, he's speaking out -- and has plenty to say. Zalenski is still living in the Ohio Valley, and he says he won’t give up his fight or his faith. He would like to be reinstated by the church, and he still maintains he never did anything wrong. "It has destroyed my life,” Zalenski said. “It has taken, this last time has taken, everything away from me.” Zalenski's was pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church from 1987-1991. He eventually landed in Belmont County at Sacred Heart in Neffs in 1999. Nearly 8 years later, in 2007, came shocking allegations from one former parishioner. "The big incident happened on summer break on a pontoon boat in a lagoon on a medium-sized island across from the main boat marina adjacent to the beach with a tall medal slide at Seneca Lake,” alleged victim Beth Ann Rocker said in a YouTube video. Aside from internet videos, Rocker started writing a book that includes her claims about what Zalenski did to her on his boat. “It happened between 1990-91, when I would have been between the ages of 11-12 years old,” Rocker added. “My brother was also with me when this disturbing illegal sexual touching occurred. I immediately got up, and my brother and I jumped in the water and swam to the lagoon and started to talk about what happened and what we should do to protect ourselves and get help.” "That was her story when we were out together,” Zalenski said. “I was attempting to molest her and her brother jumped off the boat and swam to shore and ran to the lake house. She says, and he says, they never had a lake house, and if you know anything about Seneca Lake, it's a federal lake, and you don't just jump out and swim to shore. Nothing else as far as her story is true.” That story includes other alleged assaults Zalenski while Rocker was between the ages of 8 and 12. The case went to a grand jury, but enough evidence to indict was never found. "The Guernsey County Grand Jury did a thorough investigation through their sheriff's office and the prosecutor's office and did not find her allegations even credible enough to charge me with the crime,” Zalenski said. While that stopped the criminal case, the church never stopped investigating Zalenski and kept him on administrative leave. In October 2014, that changed when the Vatican officially removed Zalenski from the priesthood, stripping him of his duties and saying he is no longer to be called Father. "It took away who I am,” Zalenski said. “I've been a priest for 37 years and all the sudden someone comes out and says, ‘you're not one anymore.’ That is absolutely devastating.” Now just ‘Mr. Zalenski,’ he still wants to know exactly why he was booted from the church. "Yet this office at the Vatican Court defrocked me over the same allegations based upon some type of documentation sent by the Diocese of Steubenville,” Zalenski said. The case started under Bishop Daniel Conlon and now falls to Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, who took over the diocese in 2012. Monforton has refused every one of NEWS9’s requests for an on-camera interview to address the case so far. And the diocese, once again through spokesperson Pat DeFrancis, issued only a written statement, saying in part: "The matter was handled in full accord with special laws approved by the pope for the United States to deal with child abuse, and the Diocese of Steubenville's Decree on Child Protection. DeFrancis said the bishop has no plans to address the Zalenski case publicly, that he already communicated through the diocese newsletter "The Steubenville Register" in December. NEWS9 reported that story then showing the small box marked "official" found all the way down on page four. In the box, the following two sentences appeared: "The sacred congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Supreme Tribunal issued a sentence Oct. 30 dismissing Gary A. Zalenski from the clerical state. This decision was communicated Nov. 17 to Diocese of Steubenville Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton." To this day, Zalenski denies the allegations. "Did I do anything?” Zalenski asked. “I did nothing to her except give her a day or two or three of entertainment on my boat.” Zalenski said he may go back to work at Belmont College. He's been teaching math there on and off for years but recently had to take a break because of an injury. Rocker is no longer living in the U.S. We did reach out to her for comment, but have not received a response. The full statement the diocese sent to us is below: Gary A. Zalenski was removed from active ministry in the Diocese of Steubenville in November 2007, as a result of an allegation of sexual assault to a minor in 1991, which was determined to be credible by the bishop at the time, R. Daniel Conlon. The matter was handled in full accord with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which was adopted by the Catholic bishops of the United States in 2002, the “Essential Norms,” which are special laws approved by the pope for the United States to deal with child abuse, and the Diocese of Steubenville’s “Decree on Child Protection.” On Nov. 17, 2014, Diocese of Steubenville Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton was communicated the decision by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Supreme Tribunal that issued a sentence Oct. 30 dismissing Zalenski from the clerical state.