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Texas Parrish Stands by Its Priest

By Joel Anderson

The Associated Press

DALLAS - More than 2,000 parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church rallied to the defense of their priest after he was accused of not performing required criminal background checks on church workers.

"This is going to rip the soul out of this church," said parishioner Sharon Beach during Monday's candlelight vigil. "It's going to be a horrible thing if they remove this man."

The Rev. Stephen Bierschenk is the second area priest reassigned this month for not conducting background checks required after a sex scandal in the Dallas Roman Catholic Diocese five years ago. The Rev. Efren Ortega, a priest for 12 years at St. James Catholic Church, was also reassigned.

Neither of the priests nor the unchecked workers have been accused of sexual misconduct.

Bierschenk said he did not know that workers who had little or no contact with children needed to be screened.

"Obviously, the Diocese of Dallas and the two bishops believe they have the right to act with urgency in order to ensure the safety of the children of the parish," diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard said Monday.

Bierschenk informed Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann that he would fight his reassignment to the much smaller St. Michael Church in McKinney, about 30 miles north of Dallas.

Organizers of the vigil asked parishioners to protest Bierschenk's transfer by not donating money or attending Sunday Mass.

At one point during the vigil, Bierschenk walked out of the church to cheers and applause. As he received hugs and words of encouragement, his eyes filled with tears.

"I don't have a speech because you've made me cry already," he said after cheers of "We love Father B" died down.

Arch McColl, the priest's attorney, said canon law protects priests from punitive reassignments without due process.

"They've kept things secret from him," McColl said. "They've flashed 15 pages of documents at him and not provided him with copies."

In 1997, the diocese was hit with a nearly $120 million verdict in a lawsuit that accused church officials of allowing a priest to molest altar boys and conspiring to cover it up. The verdict was cut by about three-quarters on appeal.

The verdict prompted the diocese to require fingerprinting and criminal background checks for all workers.

In other developments:

• A Roman Catholic priest was convicted yesterday in Santa Rosa, Calif., of molesting a 13-year-old girl in 1981 but acquitted of charges that he raped a 14-year-old girl in a church four years earlier.

The Rev. Don Kimball, 58, had denied the charges, although he admitted to having sex with adult women. He was tried more than two decades after the alleged crimes because of recent changes in state law that extended the statute of limitations for sex crimes involving children younger than 14.

• Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law said yesterday that he met recently with Pope John Paul II to seek "counsel and advice" and raised the possibility of resigning, but came away determined to clean up the sexual-abuse scandal in his archdiocese.

Calls for Law's resignation mounted last week after church personnel records released by a plaintiff's attorney showed Law knew of sex abuse allegations against the Rev. Paul Shanley but allowed him to continue as a parish priest.

Eleven American cardinals have been summoned by the Vatican to a meeting next week in Rome.

• The head of a commission appointed to review how the Archdiocese of Milwaukee handles sexual-misconduct allegations said the church should release more information about six priests accused of such allegations. The church has refused to identify the priests or describe their current duties, citing the complexity of the cases and victims' privacy.

• The Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., has decided to give prosecutors the names of priests and other church staffers accused of sexual abuse, making it the last of New Jersey's five dioceses to pass on such accusations to authorities.

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