Monday, May 24, 2004

Accused priests defended


Parishioners ask public not to prejudge

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Parishioners at Catholic churches in the Diocese of Covington share a common belief about the recent allegations of sexual abuse against two priests in the diocese: Allegations are just that, and people should wait for a verdict before pronouncing guilt.

The accusations against the Rev. Gerald Reinersman, the diocese's second-in-command behind Bishop Roger Foys, and the Rev. Mark Steidle, a pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Fort Mitchell, are the latest in a series of priest sex-abuse scandals to rock the Catholic community in Greater Cincinnati.

But several local Catholics pleaded Sunday for the public not to indict these priests for sexual abuse before the investigation is completed.

"With these men's reputations, I have no doubt these are false accusations," said Leo Greis, a Fort Mitchell man who has been a parishioner at Mother of God Church in Covington for 38 years. "But now they're going to be reminded of this for the rest of their lives, even though they're not guilty."

At Sunday Masses a week ago, priests read a letter from Bishop Foys detailing the allegations and saying Steidle and Reinersman were placed on administrative leave.

Both men have denied the allegations.

Contacted Sunday by the Enquirer, Reinersman refused to comment, aside from saying, "I hope my statement in the Messenger (diocesan newsletter) speaks for itself."

Reinersman has been accused of abusing a minor in 1979 at Mary, Queen of the Holy Rosary Church in Lexington. The man who made the allegation said he'd repressed the memory of the abuse until several years ago.

In a written statement submitted on May 12 to the Diocesan Committee for Addressing Sexual Misconduct, Reinersman stated, "I absolutely and categorically deny that I have engaged in sexual misconduct with the individual accusing me or any other person. ... My conscience is clear as I stand before God and any person."

At Blessed Sacrament Church, the Rev. Daniel Vogelpohl refused to comment about the allegations against Steidle and how the allegations might affect the parish. Many parishioners there said they had heard of the allegations but did not want to speak about them.

Steidle has been accused of inappropriately touching a minor 10 years ago at the Marydale Retreat Center in Erlanger, and the diocese said it's the only sex abuse allegation ever leveled against Steidle. He's been a parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament Church for one year.

Covington Mayor Butch Callery, who attends Holy Cross Church in Latonia, doesn't believe the allegations because Reinersman is a man "of the highest moral values."

"He's just a strait-laced, straightforward, highly moral person - a great example of what a priest should be," Callery said. "These charges are frivolous. Anybody who knows Gerry would agree with me."

Jerry Bamberger, a Covington city councilman and parishioner at Holy Cross Church, said the worst part of the abuse allegations is that the accused are considered guilty until proven innocent.

"The church wants to give the impression that they're reacting to the situation, but I'm not sure this is the way to do it," said Bamberger, who has known Reinersman for decades. "It's going to be a lifelong thing for Father Reinersman, and it'll have that stigma, no matter what the outcome is."

Bamberger called Reinersman an excellent, thoughtful priest who is dedicated to his ministry.

"I feel awful for the people who have been abused; the abusers should be punished," Bamberger said. "But I don't believe people should be accused of something without being able to prove it."

E-mail rforgrave@enquirer.com




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