Abuse Scandal Casts Pall over Local Franciscan Order
Plaintiffs Call Action against Clerics Inadequate

By Peter Smith
August 26, 2002

Priests and friars of the Conventual Franciscan order have worked in Louisville and Southern Indiana for more than 100 years, serving parishes and the poor in the tradition of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.

But in recent months, the Franciscans' locally based Province of Our Lady of Consolation has been involved in the scandal of past sexual abuse by clerics, as allegations have come to light against four members with Louisville connections.

"We as a religious community are a family," said Brother Bob Baxter, spokesman for the eight-state province, based in Mount St. Francis, Ind. "When you think what some of your brothers may have done, it's devastating to us, too."

Fifteen lawsuits filed in Jefferson Circuit Court have accused two deceased Franciscan priests and a former religious brother of sexual abuse from the 1950s into the 1970s. The accusations range from the brother allegedly molesting boys he met at a Louisville parish to allegations of a priest and teacher at Bellarmine College molesting friends' daughters as young as age 5.

The lawsuits originally named only the Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville as a defendant - part of a 183-suit caseload against the archdiocese alleging abuse by 29 clerics, teachers and a volunteer coach.

But William McMurry, a lawyer for most of the plaintiffs, has begun naming the Franciscan province as well, accusing its leaders of covering up for abusive clerics. Two parents of plaintiffs said in interviews they alerted Franciscan or archdiocesan officials at the time of the alleged abuse.


Plaintiffs say officials with the archdiocese and the Franciscan province knew of the abuse and should have taken stronger action, including disciplining the priests and reporting the cases to civil authorities.

"They both are responsible," Kathleen Willenbrink Kearney said of the archdiocese and the Franciscan order in an interview. Kearney, one of five women alleging abuse by the late Rev. Kevin Cole - a Conventual Franciscan priest - in the 1960s and 1970s, wants to ensure that in the future, church officials not only remove abusers from the priesthood but report incidents of abuse to police. "They're crimes and they should be reported," she said.

Other Franciscans accused are the late Rev. Daniel Emerine (six suits) and Brother Francis Dominic (four suits), who left the order in 1989. The Franciscans say they do not know Dominic's whereabouts, and he could not be reached for comment.

While not named in any lawsuits, a fourth Franciscan, the Rev. Ron Bohl, was removed as pastor of a Louisville parish in June for a single allegation of sexual misconduct in 1986 in Ohio.

"Our hearts are broken," said the Rev. David Lenz, who as vicar for the province is its second-ranking official. "No one is grieving more than the victims. We as friars sincerely apologize for any sexual abuse of a minor."

The Franciscans said the Rev. Peter Damian, minister provincial for the province and its top-ranking member, was unavailable for comment last week.

The Franciscans are offering counseling to victims and are considering other ideas for helping victims in the abuse crisis, Lenz said.

Though Louisville has the only public cases involving the province, other people have contacted the Conventual Franciscans this year directly rather than through lawsuits, alleging past abuse by four or five clerics in other states, Lenz said. And three Franciscans, already restricted in their ministries for past allegations, were removed entirely from ministry after bishops strengthened diocesan sanctions on abusive priests in June. Those sanctions remove priests from any sort of ministry for even a single incident of sexual abuse.

Bohl and the three unnamed Franciscans removed from ministry are living under close supervision in separate larger Franciscan communities, Baxter said. One is living at Mount St. Francis, but Baxter would not identify him.


The growing focus on the Conventual Franciscans comes as leaders of Catholic religious orders adopted a policy in Philadelphia this month that removes abusers from ministry with children but allows them to stay in their orders under supervision and do things such as office work.

The policy, endorsed by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, is less sweeping than that adopted by Roman Catholic bishops in Dallas.

Conference President Canice Connors - a Conventual Franciscan from an East Coast province who spent years overseeing treatment of priests who had committed sexual abuse - said bishops were "paralyzed in remorse and shame," failing to differentiate between serial predators and priests who may have committed a single act of abuse but reformed and became "trusted, effective moral leaders."

Victims' advocates have criticized Connors' stance as being too lenient.

"I believe that he lost a wonderful opportunity to show the most important people in the drama, the victims and survivors, that the religious superiors had not forgotten that they indeed are priests and not primarily bosses worried about their assets," said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a former Vatican Embassy canon lawyer who says bishops ignored a 1985 report he helped write that warned of a looming sexual-abuse crisis.

One-third of the nation's 45,191 Catholic priests are members of religious orders.

Because bishops decide who can minister in their dioceses, their ban on all past abusers applies to priests in religious orders as well. But priests who are members of orders, such as Franciscans or Dominicans, can remain in their orders.

"That doesn't mean that the person is ever again ministering around young people," Baxter said. "But that does mean you don't throw them out on the street and say: 'You're on your own.' "


Baxter and Lenz said they shared some of Connors' misgivings about zero tolerance, citing the case of Bohl, who resigned in June as pastor of Incarnation Church at the request of Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly.

Bohl had been accused in 1986 of making an unwanted sexual advance to a minor at a church in Carey, Ohio.

Police investigated but brought no charges, and Bohl underwent months of therapy before returning to service, Baxter said, adding that Bohl has not faced any other accusations. Carey Police Chief Dennis Yingling said Thursday that his department has no files on such a case.

"He was and we still believe is suitable to return to ministry and is not a danger to anybody," Baxter said. The archbishop "requested that we remove Ron. We did. If we were left to our own devices, we would not have removed him. We believe he was very suitable, very capable, and a very spiritual man."

Bohl, who has no assignment, did not respond to a letter seeking comment. He is now living at a Franciscan residence that Baxter declined to identify.

Lenz said "clerical arrogance," is at the root of the abuse crisis and Franciscans need to return to the reforming spirit of the order's 12th-century founder, St. Francis.

Franciscans have split into several orders since the time of Francis but share his dedication to the poor and the environment, Lenz said.

Conventual Franciscans, with about 4,000 members worldwide and 600 in the United States, are distinguished from others by their black robes and their emphasis on community living.

Conventual Franciscans, who came to the United States in 1852, established themselves in the Louisville area in the late 19th century.

The Consolation province currently has 133 members, with about dozen in Louisville, 22 at Mount St. Francis and others assigned to mission work as far away as an AIDS orphanage in Zambia, Baxter said.

The Conventual Franciscans operate three parishes in Louisville - Incarnation, St. Paul and St. Anthony - as well as St. Anthony of Padua in Clarksville, Ind.

Baxter said Franciscans try to be flexible in adapting to a region's needs - for example, establishing a 400-acre nature preserve at Mount St. Francis, serving as a buffer to increased development in Floyd County, and assigning clerics to work with the area's growing Hispanic community.

While parishes run by religious orders must follow archdiocesan policies and answer to Kelly, "it is common that the spirituality of that order becomes one of the qualities and characteristics of that congregation," said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the archdiocese.

Local Franciscan parishes, for example, typically have outreaches to the needy and partnerships with Franciscan mission churches, Lenz said. For example, members of one Louisville parish go on short-term mission trips to a partner church in Central America, he said.

In an era where many are calling for an increased role for parishioners to reform the scandal-plagued church, Lenz said the Franciscans have developed a pattern for lay involvement.

For example, the order started the Franciscan Shelter House to serve meals to the needy in Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood in 1980 and has since turned it over to a board of laypeople.

"Part of what we do is empower the laity to work in our ministries and take them over," Lenz said.









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