Bierman in Denial until the End
By Cindy Schroeder
Cincinnati Enquirer [Ohio]
June 19, 2005
Years of correspondence, but no sit-down sessions
"I am NOT a pedophile!" the childlike scrawl on the 8-by-10-inch manila envelope proclaimed.
The thick packet, stuffed with copies of court documents, a newspaper column and letters from supporters, was my first contact with serial molester and suspended Northern Kentucky priest Earl Bierman.
Within a week, three more 8-by-10 envelopes from Kentucky State Reformatory inmate No. 114523 would arrive at my newspaper office, all bulging with similar items.
It was September 2000, and I had written Bierman some weeks before to clarify an issue related to his request for early probation.
The disgraced priest never answered my question. But for the next 41/2 years, Bierman kept up a mostly one-sided correspondence, often triggered by news accounts of his deeds, allegations against other priests, or stories about the class-action lawsuit against the Covington Diocese - the nation's first class-action case alleging priest sexual abuse.
In all, Bierman sent me 82 letters and postcards before dying Monday in prison of malignant melanoma, a deadly skin cancer.
'All horse manure!'
Bierman, who died at 73, offered views on many topics:
Celibacy in the priesthood: "Did you know that there exist many married priests now in the Catholic church who converted after being Episcopal priests?"
Homosexuality: "I spent 8 years in seminary college. While there during 1949-57 never did I feel or think (at all) that the priesthood attracts homosexual men. Was not aware in those days of even one such goings on."
The class-action lawsuit against the Covington Diocese: "(Attorney) Stan Chesley's 500 to 1,000 (victims) is all horse manure! Try to think of the harm he does by getting the press to publish his evil!"
Bierman often scrawled notes in the margins of his rambling discourses, critiqued news accounts that mentioned him and included articles he'd written for the prison magazine with titles like "Evil and The Dark Side of Our Force, What is Original Sin?"and "Karma Made Me Do It."
On one of his letters, he noted in the margin: "Guess you easily discern I'm sick."
A report from the St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md., included in the records for Bierman's criminal trial, diagnosed the priest as suffering from sexual abuse of adolescents (ephebophilia), possible mood disorder, and possible mixed personality disorder with passive aggressive, avoidant and borderline features.
Bierman often took exception to press accounts labeling him a pedophile, or an adult with an abnormal sexual desire for children. The following comment in September 2003 was typical: "I never was a pedophile by the way, which means before puberty. FINAL offense was 23 years ago but with a 19-year-old."
'I am not a homosexual'
The suspended priest saved his most biting commentary for the press and his accusers.
When I wrote Bierman in March 2002, seeking information for a story I was doing on treatment programs for sex offenders, he responded: "Really wish I could assist with program story. Probably I know more about outpatient and in-patient programs than anyone in Greater Cincinnati but after the full of baloney story you authored without checking accuracy I withdraw cause (sic) am fearful of you."
Bierman repeatedly denied, without my prompting, any homosexual tendencies.
"No one has ever called me a 'fem' in any way," he wrote in the spring of 2003. "I am not a homosexual, never been to a gay bar nor know even where one is located, I swear. No interest, even revulsion "
Through all of his correspondence, Bierman presented himself as a priest, and referred to himself as "Father" even though he was no longer allowed to do so under the terms of his permanent suspension.
In a program marking Roger Foys' 2002 ordination as the 10th bishop of the Covington Diocese, Bierman attached Post-It notes over the photos of church leaders who'd visited him in prison. At the same time, he expressed betrayal by a church hierarchy that he felt let him down in his unsuccessful attempts to earn early probation or parole.
Bierman often noted he was an ephebophile, or an adult who had abnormal sexual desires for adolescents - not children under 13.
"I looked for love in all the wrong places and was sometimes initiating sexuality as a silly way of forging alliances and cementing relationships when I was young and foolish," he wrote.
The end of the secrecy
Many wondered how the former Boy Scout, who, by his own admission, had led an "idyllic childhood," could have committed such deeds.
The criminal case and civil suits against Bierman in the early 1990s turned out to be the earliest signs of a widespread sex-abuse scandal in the Covington Diocese.
For two decades, Bierman preyed on young boys in at least four Northern Kentucky parishes, authorities said. After Bierman pleaded guilty in the summer of 1993 to molesting teen-aged boys 24 times in Kenton, Campbell and Mason counties, he was sentenced to 20 years at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange.
Then-Campbell Commonwealth's Attorney Lou Ball described those cases as "the tip of the iceberg" at Bierman's sentencing. That fact was borne out by later civil suits that forced the Covington Diocese to release records showing church leaders had received 73 complaints of abuse involving the convicted priest - some dating back to 1960.
Physical, mental abuse
Former Kentucky State Police Detective Robert Scott, the lead investigator in Bierman's criminal case, said Bierman "told his victims that they were doing nothing wrong. But if they felt that they were doing something wrong, he would hear their confessions after the fact."
"You're kneeling at the altar (as an adolescent) and you think that priest has a special link to God," said Lexington resident Kay Montgomery, herself the victim of abuse by another priest formerly with the Covington Diocese.
"I didn't trust God for most of my life," said Montgomery, who directs the Lexington chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "I felt like the priest who raped me had a special bond with God, and God had abandoned me."
Perpetrators like Bierman see it differently.
"My concern is our faithful who are hurt by one-sided news, etc. and past boys, now 40 years plus who confront my motives of many moons past when I really did care and love," Bierman wrote.
Another time, he noted: "I was falsely accused that I know of by three (adolescent boys), all seeking payment - one I never heard of, another I never talked with in my whole life and one I never talked to in private (only once outside a candy store as I recall)."
In March 1986, psychologist Stephen Montana described Bierman as "extremely guarded and defensive" in records later used by lawyers involved in Bierman's criminal trial.
In his letters, Bierman characterized his accusers as everything from "a sociopath" to "a pathological liar." In March 2002, he wrote: "Never would I deliberately destroy another nor break another man's rice bowl, as my dad used to proclaim "
In the years leading up to his arrest, Bierman took part in weekly group therapy meetings for Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, court records showed, as well as individual therapy sessions with a Mount Adams psychologist.
That psychologist, C. Edward Lahniers, told lawyers in June 1993 Bierman came to him "largely at the instigation of the bishop of Covington," who felt he needed continuing psychotherapy."
"At that time, in the world of ex- (Covington) Latin students in Northern Kentucky, there were rumblings that something possibly was on the horizon regarding Earl Bierman's prior activity with some of those students," Lahniers told the court.
Lahniers told lawyers in 1993 that Bierman "not only is attracted to minors, but himself thinks like a child. He has a simplistic view of the world and tends to think in extreme terms, i.e. good-bad, pretty-ugly, etc"
No personal meeting
For several years, I tried to get a face-to-face interview to get Bierman to elaborate on the issues he'd broached in his letters. In the past year, the 73-year-old suspended priest had complained he was in ill health, and said that his mother and grandmother both died at 73.
The week before Christmas, Bierman sent me an article from the prison magazine titled "Chicken Hill," the nickname for the final resting place for prisoners who have no family to claim them.
His final communication in January was a copy of a letter that a friend in Louisville had written, expressing concern over Bierman's malignant melanoma. In the margin, the ailing prisoner had written that the author's wife "is cured of cancer."
During Bierman's final months, I repeatedly sought an interview.
I made my last request at 1:30 p.m. on June 13 - just 24 days before the Kentucky Parole Board would decide whether to grant the terminally ill prisoner his freedom.
Two hours after I'd called to request the interview, prison spokesman Gary Prestijiacomo called back with the news I'd been expecting for some time. "Mr. Bierman is not going to be able to meet with you," Prestijiacomo told me. "Ten minutes after I went to our nursing facility to speak with him about your request, he passed away."
Enquirer reporter Jim Hannah contributed to this story. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Earl Bierman history
1957: Ordained in Covington.
1957-60: Serves in assignments in Newport and Versailles, Ky.
1960-61: Reassigned to Newport Catholic High School. Admits sexual involvement with three students who report him to the bishop.
1962-65: Sent to Archbishop of Santa Fe by the late Covington Bishop Richard Ackerman. The Official Catholic Directory lists Bierman as "serving outside the diocese."
1965-74: Various pastoral assignments in Northern Kentucky.
1968-74: Part-time teacher at Covington Latin School.
June 1974-May 1975: Catholic Directory lists Bierman at Mt. St. Martin Institute in Newport.
Sept.-Dec. 1975: Granted sabbatical to earn his master's of divinity.
1975-78: Faculty member of Saint Francis College in Loretto, Pa. While he's away, receives a letter from the bishop suspending him because of sexual involvement with students at Covington Latin.
Spring, 1977: Bierman goes, on his own, for evaluation at the House of Affirmation in Massachusetts and returns, "to the anger of the bishop." Bierman spends several months in the House of Affirmation.
May 1978: Bierman returns to the Covington Diocese and admits he's resumed a relationship with a male adolescent and developed a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy. He tells a psychologist that the 14-year-old "moved fast on me."
1978-87: Teaching and parish assignments in Northern Kentucky.
Feb. 27, 1986: Examined at St. Bernardine Clinic in Suitland, Md., after three people threaten to go to the press with their allegations that Bierman abused two teen boys. A canonical (church) panel finds no information "concerning sexual allegations in the past year." However, church leaders threaten to kick Bierman out of the priesthood if he doesn't agree to be evaluated.
June 13, 1986-Dec. 14, 1986: Treated at St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md.
Sept. 1, 1991: Retires.
July 1, 1992: Suspended.
July 2, 1993: Sentenced to 20 years in prison for molesting boys.
Mid-1990s: In response to civil suits against Bierman and the Covington Diocese, church leaders release records showing they had received 73 complaints of abuse involving the convicted priest - some dating back to 1960.
June 13, 2005: Bierman dies.
Sources: Court records and The Official Catholic Directory
To prevent future Earl Biermans, the Covington Diocese has taken a number of steps since 1985, said diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald. They include:
The 1985 adoption and subsequent revision in 1995, 2000 and 2003 of a Policies and Procedures Manual for Addressing Sexual Misconduct. The Covington Diocese was among the first in the United States to adopt such a policy.
The diocese has begun a "safe environment program" as required by the U.S. Bishops Charter of 1992. That mandates training for new diocesan employees and volunteers, as well as an annual 31/2-hour refresher course for existing employees and volunteers, on how to recognize and deal with inappropriate adult behaviors and how to spot the warning signs of possible abuse in children. The children in diocesan schools and parish religion education programs receive similar training from a program offered by the Women's Crisis Center, the Family Nurturing Center and the Council on Child Abuse of Southern Ohio.
Background checks on diocesan workers and volunteers are now routine, and "a heightened screening process" is standard practice for candidates for the seminary, Fitzgerald said.
To make sure that the diocese is complying with those practices, it undergoes unscheduled audits of its records by retired FBI agents.
"Changes are happening across the board, in the medical and legal community, as well in the church," Fitzgerald said. "Today, we're all much more aware of what inappropriate behavior looks like and what can happen to children as a result of it. People can more readily recognize inappropriate behavior and feel more comfortable reporting it."
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