Months after the Rev. Stephen Muth retired at St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Whiting, superiors put him on administrative leave, removing him from the priesthood.
Church leaders had concluded Muth, 69, received a “recent credible accusation of sexual misconduct involving a vulnerable adult (considered a minor under canon law),” according to a statement dated Oct. 22.
The priest denied the allegation to the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, an Eastern rite sect based in Ohio that has churches in several Midwestern states. It is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Muth worked for both after he was ordained.
“Though Father Stephen Muth denies the accusation, Bishop Milan Lach, SJ, having heard from the priest, the Review Board, and the Promoter of Justice, has found the accusation to be credible,” according to the statement.
“A finding that the accusation is credible is not an accusation of guilt,” the church’s statement read. “While on administrative leave, Father Stephen Muth is unable to function in any capacity as a priest anywhere.”
Lach was installed as bishop in June 2018.
Muth’s last known assignment appears to be in Whiting from November 2010 to late 2017, according to a review of church websites, articles, newspaper obituaries and interviews.
Muth retired as an active priest in January 2018, according to Horizons, a Catholic publication. A single listed phone number for Muth appeared to be disconnected.
Before Whiting, federal court records show Muth faced a 2006 civil lawsuit from a Kansas City man who claimed the priest abused him as a 12-year-old boy and again a decade later as an adult.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2009. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City had investigated an abuse claim made around 2004 and cleared him, a spokeswoman then told the Associated Press. It was unclear if it involved the same accusation.
Muth was allowed to return as an active priest. Since the lawsuit, he worked at a parish in Missouri, briefly in Texas, before he was transferred to St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church, 2011 Clark St., in Whiting.
Parishioner: ‘I don’t think anybody knows what happened.’
“I don’t think anybody knows what happened,” St. Mary’s church council member Rose Baranko, 72, said of the church’s move in October to bar Muth working as a priest. “We knew he was retiring.”
Baranko said she and her husband saw Muth once more when they drove up to Holy Resurrection Monastery in Wisconsin sometime after he left St. Mary’s.
They may have dropped off some books he left, then took him out to lunch, she said.
Back at St. Mary’s, Baranko said she was not aware Muth had been sued in 2006. She wasn’t aware if parishioners were told by the church.
“I didn’t know any of that happened in Missouri,” she said. “There might have been rumors. I can’t be for sure. Nobody really spoke of it, put it in writing or anything.”
Muth never spoke of the allegations, Baranko, a lifelong St. Mary’s parishioner said.
“Maybe he thought the case was closed and didn’t want to bring it up,” she said.
During the period he was there, St. Mary’s had some young adults, but not a lot of children, she said. It no longer had Eastern Christ Formation (its version of Catholic CCD/youth education).
“Yeah, we would like to know it,” Baranko, a homemaker and mother of 7.
James Niehaus, a Byzantine church lawyer said via email he had been unable yet to look into questions if Muth received any allegations in Whiting or where the “credible” abuse happened.
There is no record of any criminal charges against Muth in Indiana.
In October, Muth was placed on administrative leave at the same time as the Rev. Basil Hutsko of Merrillville’s St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Church.
Hutsko, 65, a Whiting native, drew national attention in August in a separate case after he claimed he was attacked inside the Merrillville church. Church superiors later said he lied about the attack.
Following the incident, church leaders reexamined a sex abuse allegation against Hutsko that surfaced in 2004. A woman came forward to allege the priest had abused her as a child between 1979 and 1983. The location is not known.
In 2004, the church investigated her claim and concluded there was not enough evidence to judge whether it happened, Lach told St. Michael’s congregation during a Sunday service last year.
Now, 35 years later, church officials judged it to be “credible,” in the statement announcing Hutsko’s administrative leave.
“The Eparchy of Parma is committed to protecting children and helping to heal victims of abuse,” they said. “We are deeply sorry for the pain suffered by survivors of abuse due to actions of some members of the clergy.”
A former groundskeeper at St. Luke Byzantine Catholic Church in Sugar Creek, Mo., filed a lawsuit against Muth in 2006, stating the priest had molested him at a swimming pool in Wichita, Kan., as a 12-year-old boy in 1992 and then a decade later as an adult. The man was identified as John Doe in court filings.
According to the lawsuit, Muth and his alleged victim met in 1992, when the boy was taking part in a church-sponsored leadership training program, the Associated Press reported.
In 2002, the suit claims, Muth contacted the alleged victim again. The priest hired him as a maintenance man and groundskeeper at St. Luke’s and Our Lady of Peace Parish, a Kansas City church where the diocese says Muth was assigned some duties from 2002 to 2004.
Muth provided his alleged victim with temporary housing and loans, the suit claims, and would attempt to fondle his employee, then chastise and humiliate him when he was rejected. The priest also allegedly told the plaintiff he was a trained physical therapist and encouraged the plaintiff to take part in massage sessions in which the priest again attempted to molest him, the AP reported.
In the lawsuit, the man alleged he told the local bishop and vicar general after claiming he found Muth in bed with a young boy around summer 2004. The man claimed his hours were cut and he was fired for “budgetary reasons” in July 2005, according to the lawsuit.
The man charged the church “had actual knowledge prior to 1992 of Muth’s propensity for engaging in sexual improprieties with children and otherwise inappropriate behavior,” according to documents filed in federal court.
After the lawsuit was filed, an Eparchy of Parma spokeswoman told the AP it was not aware of any accusations made against Muth. A Diocese of Kansas City spokeswoman said it had investigated a prior complaint against the priest.
The diocese said it placed Muth on administrative leave after abuse was alleged in August 2004. An internal review cleared him, and the diocese granted him permission to return to ministry, the AP reported. The Diocese said it also reported the allegation to the Missouri Division of Family Services, which church officials said found the claims unsubstantiated. The agency declined to comment to the AP, citing state privacy laws.
The lawsuit was thrown out in 2009.
If a priest is cleared by the church after an internal investigation, it does not have an automatic obligation to tell the next parish, the Rev. Thomas Loya, of Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Ill., said.
“If the accusation was considered to be not credible, there’s no reason to say anything about it,” he said. “You are not hiding anything. A lot of times, people are accused.”
“If it is not found out to be true, it’s a closed case,” Loya said.
Loya, who briefed the media last summer on Hutsko, said he was not as familiar with Muth’s case. The church was concerned that a priest’s reputation would be tarnished if they were falsely accused of abusing a child, he said.
When asked if a parent would want to know that information, Loya said their child could also grow up to become a priest. He cautioned against a rush to judgment. The church needed to be very sensitive to potential abuse victims, Loya said. Yet, a false accusation could be very harmful to a priest.
“We create other kinds of victims,” he said. “For a priest, (having a) reputation to be damaged is an abuse in itself.”
“Most, if not all states, now have laws requiring clergy to report suspected child abuse, but otherwise there is nothing to stop churches from making their own decisions regarding regarding their clergy,” said Melanie Sakoda, co-founder of pokrov.org, an organization for victims from Catholic and Orthodox churches.
“The primary issue I see with this system is that the Catholic Church — including the Eastern Rite groups — have shown that they can not be trusted to police their priests,” she said via email. “The best system is one where all criminal investigations are left to the professionals in law enforcement.
“If any Church investigation is still required after police and prosecutors are finished, Catholic officials need to be completely transparent about what is being investigated, what the findings of the investigation are, and why the Church reached that conclusion,” Sakoda said. “Too much has been hidden from the faithful, and the public, in the past, to the great detriment of countless children.”
There is a moral obligation to inform parishioners if a new priest has any allegations in their past, which the church has largely failed to do, Sakoda said.
“The Church should absolutely be required to inform parishioners if their priest has been accused,” Sakoda said. “The families in the parish cannot make informed decisions concerning the safety of their children without having that information.
“Clergymen are automatically in a position of trust. If there is a suspicion that they might not be worthy of the trust, it should be shared with the people who will be most affected,” she said.