The Diocese of Harrisburg’s current leader lobbied to not defrock two priests who had been suspended for sexual abuse, according to state grand jury findings released Tuesday.
Bishop Ronald Gainer wrote to the Vatican in 2014 to lobby against removing James Beeman and Joseph Pease from the priesthood, according to the grand jury report.
Pease was accused, and confessed to at least one accusation, of fondling and performing oral sex on a child. Beeman was accused of, and admitted to, repeatedly raping a girl starting when she was 8 years old.
“I believe that the harm done by his past sexual misconduct is being sufficiently repaired,” Gainer wrote in a letter regarding Pease, according to the grand jury report.
“I am not seeking the initiation of a trial, or dismissal from the clerical state. Instead, I request from the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith that Joseph Michael Pease be permitted to live out his remaining years in prayer and penance, without adding further anxiety or suffering to his situation, and without risking public knowledge of his crimes,” Gainer is quoted in the grand jury report as writing.
The grand jury wrote that it “disagrees” with Gainer’s stance.
“While removing Pease from ministry was a start, he was clearly unfit to carry the title of priest. Moreover, public knowledge of Pease’s crime is exactly what was required in service to the public and Pease’s victims,” the grand jury wrote.
Gainer also took a similar stance on Beeman, writing “I believe that the scandal caused by his admission of the sexual abuse of minor girls has been sufficiently repaired by his acceptance of the penal precepts,” the grand jury reported.
The grand jury report details two years of investigative hearings into sexual abuse at six of Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.
While many of the findings in the report relate to abuse — and associated cover-ups by the dioceses — that occurred decades ago, Gainer’s position regarding Beeman and Pease appears to be one of only a few examples of current leadership having shown interest in suppressing public knowledge.
The Diocese of Harrisburg provided nearly identical responses to The Sentinel’s inquiries about the Beeman and Pease cases, stating in both instances that Gainer did not wish to pursue the expulsion of the offender from the priesthood given that such a move would require a canonical trial.
Both men were of “diminished mental capacity” as of 2014, meaning that such a trial was “not a viable option,” according to the diocese.
The diocese also described Gainer’s correspondence with the Vatican as a “form letter” in both instances.
“The form letter is regrettably not written well and does not accurately represent the action that was taken,” the diocese wrote in response to both the Beeman and Pease inquiries.
Both Beeman and Pease were apparently subject to penal precepts, which suspended them from practicing ministry, but were never fully stripped of their ecclesiastical status.
In 2014, Gainer’s office began a review to resolve the status of all outstanding clergy who had been accused of sexual offenses, according to the Diocese of Harrisburg, hence making recommendations to the Vatican.
Pease’s case was originally disclosed in 2002, when he was suspended from his duties at a parish in Mt. Carmel after he confessed to sexually abusing children. Pease had spent most of his career at St. Joseph’s in Mechanicsburg, from 1978 until he was moved in 1995 after allegations of abuse first surfaced.
According to the grand jury’s report, Pease was given a psychological evaluation at a church treatment center in 1995, which determined that he should be allowed to stay in active ministry. He continued to work for seven years in Mt. Carmel until admitting to the allegations.
Multiple accusations surfaced against Pease, although it appears that Pease’s specific admission was with regard to an incident in 1972. At least one of the accusations included an incident in which Pease allegedly fondled and performed oral sex on children during a boating trip on the Chesapeake Bay.
Pease’s example was highlighted by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro as a textbook example of the church’s failure to deal with sexual predators in its clergy, and instead simply moving them around.
The grand jury report notes that Pease’s case was one of many in which the church attempted to use internal treatment centers in an attempt to “diagnose” a priest’s pedophilia instead of confronting the actual behavior.
“Put plainly, these institutions laundered accused priests, provided plausible deniability to the bishops, and permitted hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry,” the grand jury wrote.
Beeman was accused and suspended from active ministry in 1991, according to the grand jury, after a woman reported that she had been sexually assaulted by Beeman on four occasions from 1961 to 1973. Three of these instances were rape, including an instance in which Beeman raped the victim while she was in the hospital after a dental procedure, and another rape when she was pregnant, the grand jury wrote.
Beeman admitted to the allegations in 1991, and was, similar to Pease, issued a penal precept and an internal assessment by the church, according to the grand jury, which uncovered other instances in which Beeman had fondled young girls.
Beeman worked at multiple parishes in the region, including two in Cumberland County – St. Patrick in Carlisle from 1958 to 1959, and Our Lady of Visitation in Shippensburg from 1964 to 1968.