NewsLocal NewsI-Team


Does Catholic Church move priests with credible abuse claims to keep them hidden?

Posted: 5:00 AM, Nov 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-19 23:36:57-05

He was a young science teacher at the all-boys Purcell High School in 1978, when he said a sobbing student came to him and another teacher with a shocking story.

“Brother Frank Russell raped me,” the student said.

“At first it was disbelief,” the teacher said. “But then I thought ‘Oh my God, here it is again.’”

That teacher spoke for the first time to WCPO, requesting anonymity because of his own sexual abuse by a priest as a child. When he encountered abuse again, this time as a teacher, he said he reported it to the school right away. The Marianist Province denied seeing a report back then.

“He was in charge of detention at the high school … and we learned from this student that Brother Russell would take students, those who had misbehaved, to a local motel and have sex with them,” he said.

The teacher said Russell, who was a brother in the Marianist Catholic order and an assistant principal, never returned to Purcell, and the principal told him Russell went to Boston.

If you or someone you know is a survivor of abuse, you can call the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests at 1-800-SNAP-HEALS.

You can also contact the Diocese of Covington to report abuse at 859-392-1515; the Archdiocese of Cincinnati can be reached at 513-263-6623 or on their website.

In its three-month I-Team investigation WCPO discovered the Catholic Church often moved priests and brothers to new parishes and schools after they were accused of abuse or inappropriate behavior, without sharing that information with the public.

In Russell’s case, he stayed in the Tri-State area and became interim principal of another high school, according to Marianist Province spokeswoman Bernadette Groner.

“Which meant that our report never made its way up, it was never documented,” the teacher said. “Or … it’s being concealed, it’s being covered up.”

The Marianist Province did not receive credible reports of sexual abuse against Russell prior to 1994, Groner said.

The August arrest of the Rev. Geoff Drew, accused of raping an altar boy 30 years ago, has re-opened questions about how the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the Diocese of Covington and religious orders handled allegations of sexual abuse in the past, and how they react to them now.

WCPO discovered many of the schools and churches where Drew worked, including Elder High School, are the same places where the Archdiocese of Cincinnati historically assigned other priests accused of sexual assault.

The archdiocese has assigned publicly accused priests to many of the same parishes over the years – such as St. Therese Little Flower in Cincinnati and St. Jude in Bridgetown, while sparing other parishes from ever employing a publicly accused priest over the past 60 years – such as St. Mary’s in Hyde Park and Our Lord Christ the King in Mount Lookout, according to WCPO’s research of national Catholic directories.

“What we found is, there was a pattern,” said Christy Miller, co-founder of the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group that tracks where accused priests work.

Christy Miller co-founded a local chapter of abuse support group
Christy Miller co-founded a local chapter of abuse support group

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati declined an interview for this story. It did provide WCPO with written responses to some questions, such as a definition for "credibly accused" priests and an explanation for how it assigns priests, but offered no response to others.

The Diocese of Covington did not respond to eight requests for an interview or information, made by phone and email, from WCPO over several weeks.

Then last week, days away from the release of this I-Team series, a spokeswoman for the diocese released a statement that an independent review of priest files dating back to 1950 was underway.

Her statement did not provide a timetable for the review or say if a list of credibly accused priests would be released.

The former all-boys Purcell High School

A Marianist spokeswoman confirmed that the order had received credible sexual abuse accusations against Russell while he was at Purcell High School, but not until 1994, which was after his death.

The Marianists did not make allegations against Russell public until WCPO started asking questions. It also does not publish a list of credibly accused, but the spokeswoman said the order is working on it. The Marianists, like many religious orders nationally, do not publish a list, and aren’t required to.

Once Russell left Purcell in 1978, he went to the Diocese of Covington’s Office of Religious Education, then to Holy Cross High School in Latonia, Ky. He was interim principal there before retiring in 1983, a Marianist spokeswoman said.

Open list in new window.

An archdiocese convicted

Almost exactly 16 years ago – on Nov. 20, 2003, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati made national headlines when it was convicted of five counts of failing to report sexually abusive priests.

It was a historic sight in the courtroom, lawyers recalled, when then Archbishop Daniel Pilarcyzk stood below a Hamilton County judge and pleaded no contest to “knowingly” failing to report felony sex crimes between children and priests from 1978 to 1982.

That day, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati announced a $3 million victim compensation fund as Pilarcyzk asked for forgiveness and told victims, “Help us to see to it that what you have suffered will never happen again."

But the archdiocese’s recent handling of the Drew case has many local Catholics wondering if it kept that promise.

In October, more than 1,300 local Catholics signed a petition asking the Vatican to investigate how the archdiocese handled Drew.

Parishioners of St. Maximilian Kolbe, where Drew was pastor from 2009 until 2018, said they complained to the archdiocese in 2013 and again in 2015 about Drew’s behavior – uninvited bear hugs, shoulder massages, knee patting and inappropriate sexual comments to teenage boys.

The Archdiocese forwarded those complaints to Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser, who determined that no crime took place. But he said he warned the archdiocese to monitor Drew’s behavior.

The archdiocese confirmed that it did not actively monitor Drew; instead, it allowed him to self-report to a “monitor” not connected with the church.

"They just don't sometimes seem to take this seriously," Gmoser said. “Ignorance is no excuse for what the Archbishop claims he didn’t know.”

When the archdiocese transferred Drew to St. Ignatius Loyola Parish in Green Township in July 2018, where the largest Catholic school in the state is housed, it admitted it did not tell school officials about those past complaints.

“It was absolutely a failing on our part that we don't follow up with him to say, ‘Have you stopped this?’ Or we don't investigate on our own at that point,” archdiocese spokeswoman Jennifer Schack said in an August interview. “Those were faults of ours.”

Drew was suspended from St. Ignatius in July after a new accusation emerged that he had sent an inappropriate text message to at least one boy.

Then, a 41-year-old man came forward with accusations that Drew had raped him 30 years ago when he was an altar boy at St. Jude’s in Bridgetown.

After hearing the alleged victim’s testimony, a grand jury indicted Drew on nine counts of rape in August. He pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Geoffrey Drew Court Sept 11
Rev. Geoffrey Drew, the priest charged with nine counts of rape, was in court alongside his defense attorney Wednesday, requesting his $5 million bond be lowered to $100,000 -- Sept. 11, 2019.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters described the victim’s grand jury testimony at an August news conference.

"It was very emotional," Deters said. "It was emotional for him. It was emotional for the grand jury … He deserves a lot of credit for coming forward, as difficult as it is. He could’ve just said, ‘I’m moving on with my life,’ but he wanted to stop this behavior. And he’s going to."

Moving priests

Miller is doubtful priest abuse will ever end locally.

She was sexually abused by her religion teacher and music minister, the Rev. Tom Brunner, while at Mount Notre Dame High School starting as a freshman in 1984.

“A 35-year-old man taking a 15-year-old to his bedroom in the rectory,” Miller said. “They had to know that this was happening, and they just turned their heads. And I think that’s exactly what happens today.”

WCPO attempted to contact Brunner by leaving messages on two phone numbers tied to his last known address in Dayton, and through messages sent to two email addresses connected to him through a public records search. He did not respond to those messages.

The Vatican removed Brunner from priesthood in 2006 -- roughly 20 years after Miller said she first reported the abuse to her principal.

“They said that they believed me, but he remained in the school for another year and it wasn’t until I found out that he was abusing another girl … he was let go,” Miller said. “But he wasn’t fired, he was just moving to a different position in the diocese.”

Mount Notre Dame High School.
Mount Notre Dame High School.

Miller spent hours in the library researching where the archdiocese had assigned Brunner and other accused priests over the years.

“These men were moved often, very often. Every time another allegation came forward, they were moved to another church,” Miller said. “The more allegations that happened, we noticed that the further out in the diocese they went.”

Geoff Drew once taught at Elder High School.

WCPO conducted similar research using national Catholic directories to track where accused priests, including Drew, were assigned over the past 60 years and determined that they often served in the same schools and churches.

For example, Elder High School, where Drew taught music from 1988 to 1991, was also the workplace for three priests who were eventually defrocked for accusations of sexual misconduct over the past three decades: David Kelley, Lawrence Strittmatter and Thomas Kuhn.

Drew worked as a music minister at St. Jude’s from 1984 to 1999, where prosecutors allege the rape of an altar boy occurred. Also there during this time was G.R. Keith Albrecht, a priest who was defrocked in 2005 after accusations of sexual abuse.

Once Drew was ordained in 2004, his first assignment was at St. Luke’s Church in Beavercreek. This is where Albrecht and another defrocked priest, Ellis Harsham, had both served years earlier, according to church records.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati declined to answer questions about how it places priests, but in a statement wrote that assignments are overseen by a priest personnel board and final approval is given by the archbishop.

“Priests who have substantiated allegations of abuse or are on administrative leave are not assigned to parishes,” Schack wrote.

Open list in new window.

Secret files
Attorney Konrad Kircher has represented 90 abuse survivors in lawsuits throughout Ohio against the Catholic Church.

“You know the church has always been about secrecy,” Kircher said. “The hot button for the church is the secret files. What are called the sub secreto files.”

Through litigation, Kircher got access to documents from the secret archive, which he believes show a “concerted effort at the highest levels” of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to deceive victims, authorities and other priests about the extent of the molestation, according to court filings.

Attorney Konrad Kircher
Attorney Konrad Kircher

“We were able to get documents from the archdiocese, and we got some smoking guns,” Kircher said.

Kircher included these documents in court filings in 2004, opening them up to public view for the first time.

In a series of letters from 1986, archdiocese leaders encouraged an abuse victim of Rev. David Kelley not to seek counseling from a civilian therapist who “may report the accused priest to civil authorities,” and instead seek help from a priest, according to court filings.

The Vatican was in the process of defrocking Kelley when he died in 2009.

In another letter from 2003, a priest asked then Chancellor Joseph Binzer about public statements that the archdiocese made, saying it didn’t know until 1994 about Kelley’s abuse.

The priest reminded Binzer that he personally reported Kelley to the archdiocese in 1986, according to the filings.

“Sorry if this causes any more difficulties to your most challenging task of the clergy abuse problem,” the Rev. Tom Bolte wrote to Binzer in September 2003, according to court filings.

In August Binzer was removed as head of priest personnel because an archdiocese spokesman said he failed to report earlier complaints about Drew’s inappropriate behavior to Archbishop Dennis Schnurr.

Siege litigation
Don Moore Jr. said he was the first attorney in Hamilton County to sue the Archdiocese over priest abuse in the early 1990s.

Attorney Don Moore was the first attorney in Hamilton County to file lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati over abuse allegations.
Attorney Don Moore was the first attorney in Hamilton County to file lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati over abuse allegations.

His clients were alleged victims of George Cooley, a defrocked priest who went to jail on charges of child endangerment and sexual imposition in a highly publicized case.

In the aftermath of Cooley’s conviction, the Archdiocese faced a slew of lawsuits.

"What we didn’t get when we approached the Archdiocese was a ministerial approach,” Moore said. “What we got was a siege litigation approach where every device legally available was used by the archdiocese to defend the cases.”

Most of his cases reached confidential, out-of-court settlements, but not without a fight, Moore said.

"There were no admissions,” Moore said. “There were no concessions. It was just as if we’d sued any major corporation.”

Moore said his cases instigated the first real change in how the Cincinnati Archdiocese handled sexually abusive priests. While he’s noticed some improvement in how church leaders handled the recent Drew case compared to 30 years ago, he said it was far from perfect.

“Early on they had reported what they thought might be objectionable behavior to the prosecutor’s office. Okay, good for them,” Moore said. “Because that did not happen in the 1990s.”

But Moore said the archdiocese should have monitored Drew after complaints first surfaced.

“If a person has a sexual issue that compels them ... to do bad things, then self-reporting is not going to cut it,” Moore said. “That someone has to be monitored carefully.”

When Kircher learned of the Drew indictment, he also paid particular attention to how the archdiocese handled the complaint compared to the way it had years prior with his cases.

“My initial thoughts were, ‘Of course it’s still happening. Why should anybody be surprised,’” Kircher said.

But Kircher said he also thought about Binzer, the auxiliary bishop who he had gotten to know very well over the years because he frequently brought abuse survivors to see him.

“I very much respected how he handled these victims,” Kircher said. “He validated them. He apologized very credibly. So I saw Father Binzer as one of the good ones.”