Can review of abuse cases ‘cleanse’ Lexington’s Catholic diocese? Only if victims come forward.
By Linda Blackford
October 2, 2019
Last December, Bishop John Stowe, the head of the Lexington Catholic diocese, announced that two lawyers would review the personnel files of every priest who’s worked here since the 50-county diocese was formed in 1988 and every sexual abuse claim ever made. The investigation would determine if sexual abuse complaints had been handled properly or if anything had been missed. That included any new complaints.
The lawyers, Allison Connelly and Andrew Sparks, have been going through thousands of pages of files, ranging from past complaints to the backgrounds of current priests. They’ve also been advertising in parish newsletters to let people know they are ready to take new complaints about the scourge of abuse that has roiled the Catholic Church for nearly the past two decades.
But they haven’t heard about any new complaints, and are worried that word is not getting out beyond the Church that a new investigation is ongoing. Many sexual abuse survivors left the church after being ignored for so many years and won’t see parish newsletters, Connelly said.
“It’s not only what’s in the files, but what’s not in the files,” said Connelly, who founded and runs the University of Kentucky Law Clinic. “There’s a hierarchy in the Catholic Church, and I think sometimes someone may tell someone and that doesn’t get reported. What we’re trying to do is make sure anyone who has an allegation or has said they were touched as a child, we want to make sure that gets reported.”
Under the agreement with Stowe, the lawyers would report anything credible to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office, without referring the complaint first to the Church.
“I have no dog in this fight, I’m not a Catholic, not very religious,” Connelly said. “This bishop really wants to cleanse his diocese.”
Stowe was not available to comment for this article, but this cleansing may have been prompted by a grand jury report from Pennsylvania last August which documented the abuse of more than 1,000 children by 300 named priests. Former Lexington Bishop Ronald Gainer was named as one of the church leaders who protected predator priests as bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese, where he took over in 2014 after leaving Lexington.
In 2014, according to press reports, Gainer asked the Vatican not to defrock two priests who had been suspended for sexual abuse, according to the grand jury report. “Joseph Pease was accused of fondling and performing oral sex on a 13-year-old boy, and confessed to at least one accusation, according to the grand jury report. The other, James Beeman, was accused and later admitted to repeatedly raping a girl, beginning when she was 8 years old, according to The Sentinel. For at least one of them, Gainer wanted to avoid ‘”risking public knowledge of his crimes.’”
Lexington is a young diocese, formed out of the much larger Covington Diocese, which made a record $120 million payout to about 200 sexual abuse survivors in 2005. In 2003, the Louisville diocese paid about $25.7 million, which was divided among 243 abuse victims. Since then, BishopAccountability.org, which documents such cases, has just seven cases listed for the Lexington diocese.
Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), seemed fairly unimpressed by Stowe’s action, which follows other dioceses.
“While it is good that church officials want to ensure nothing has been missed, when these reports are commissioned by church officials themselves, usually those same church officials are the arbiters of what gets released and what does not,” Hiner said. “We believe that if church officials in Lexington truly wanted a full accounting of the scope of clergy abuse in Lexington and to ensure that no complaints had been missed, they would ask for an investigation by outside, secular law enforcement officials. Let district attorneys, police, or the attorney general review the files instead, as these people are beholden to the public and not to the church officials that hired them.”
As just another person who was predictably appalled by the extent of abuse and the Catholic Church’s reactions to it, I’ll wait to see how much of the eventual report Stowe is willing to make public. So far, I’ve been impressed by Stowe’s statements on the need for humane immigration reform, his condemnation of white supremacists in Charlottesville and his commentary after the incident involving students from Covington Catholic at a pro-life march in Washington, D.C.
But both Connelly and Sparks noted that the church is clearly paying more attention to the issue because the more recently ordained priests’ files are getting fatter and fatter, filled with more documents on psychological evaluations and sexual abuse prevention training.
The report is expected to be finished in the spring, Connelly said, and will probably address current processes as well as past cases. For now, though she and Sparks, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, want to see if more people come forward.
“We just want to do as thorough a job as possible and the only way to do that is to let people know what we’re doing,” Sparks said. “If you’re not in the church anymore and have a credible allegation, please reach out to us so we can look into it.”