Student Well-Being

St. Louis to Probe Ex-Priest’s Career in Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — April 17, 2002 4 min read
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Leaders of the St. Louis school district are trying to piece together how a former Roman Catholic priest was allowed to work in counseling jobs with public school children for seven years after officials learned that he had been accused of sexual molestation.

A widening circle of accusations has centered on James A. Beine, who resigned from his counseling job at Patrick Henry Elementary School on March 21. One week later, he was arrested on state charges for allegedly exposing himself to two brothers in the school’s restroom during the 2000-01 school year. On April 5, federal prosecutors filed a separate count against him of possessing child pornography.

The St. Louis school board voted 5-2 on April 2 to launch an internal investigation into the district’s actions in hiring and assigning Mr. Beine, who was removed from the priesthood in 1977 amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Mr. Beine has worked in at least 11 St. Louis schools since his hiring in 1991, as well as in public schools in West Virginia, Virginia, and other parts of Missouri.

“We pray that the two or three incidents we have were all that happened,” school board member William C. Haas said last week.

Mr. Beine was being held in a Madison County, Ill., jail last week, pending a hearing on his extradition to Missouri. Upon his return to Missouri, he faces three state counts of sexual misconduct involving a child in connection with the brothers at Patrick Henry Elementary.

But St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer M. Joyce said she was investigating about 30 more complaints involving Mr. Beine and expected to file more charges.

The school board does not plan to begin its probe until the state criminal case is completed. At that point, federal prosecutors also plan to proceed with the pornography case. Ray Gruender, the U.S. attorney in St. Louis, said in a prepared statement that Mr. Beine had asked a friend to hold for him a computer disk containing hundreds of explicit pictures of minors engaged in sexual conduct.

Mr. Beine’s lawyer did not return calls seeking comment, but has told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the molestation charges are “all made up, a bunch of garbage.”

The controversy over Mr. Beine’s employment in the St. Louis schools comes as leaders of the Catholic Church around the country are facing intense criticism over their handling of cases of priests’ sexual misconduct with minors. (“Catholic Church’s Priest Abuse Crisis Tests School Policies, Educators’ Faith,” April 3, 2002.)

Two Job Transfers

School district officials in St. Louis transferred Mr. Beine from his counseling job at an elementary school to another job away from children, in a library-services building, after St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali announced in June 1994 that two civil lawsuits had been filed against Mr. Beine alleging sexual molestation of boys when he was a priest. By early the following year, however, Mr. Beine had been reassigned to another elementary school counseling job.

A copy of a 1994 newspaper article mentioning the lawsuits has been found in Mr. Beine’s personnel file, according to school board members.

Chester Edmonds, a spokesman for the 43,000-student district, said officials do not have all the facts surrounding the decision to put Mr. Beine back into a job where he worked with children. Mr. Edmonds noted that the decision was made under a previous superintendent.

Mr. Haas, the school board member, said he hopes an investigation will uncover what led to Mr. Beine’s reassignment. “I do know that 12 board members and a whole administration, including the superintendent, were either asleep at the wheel, didn’t care, or were complicit in the decision to put him back with kids,” said Mr. Haas, who joined the board six years ago.

The district learned from the Post-Dispatch last month that two lawsuits against Mr. Beine, a tenured employee of the district, had been settled by the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 1997 and 1999 for a total of $110,000.

When Mr. Beine resigned last month, Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr. agreed to pay him $11,600—the amount remaining in his contract—"to sever his connection with the district as quickly as possible,” Mr. Edmonds said.

Mr. Edmonds expressed regret that the archdiocese had not reported Mr. Beine’s problems to child-welfare authorities, which he said would have been “a red flag” to state and local school officials. “If we had known about his whole history, he might not have been hired,” Mr. Edmonds said.

Terry Edelmann, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Archbishop Rigali had made no secret of the allegations and held a press conference about the lawsuits when they were filed in 1994. Ms. Edelmann noted that the archdiocese is obligated to report incidents involving minors to child-welfare officials, but that the plaintiffs in those lawsuits were no longer minors.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as St. Louis to Probe Ex-Priest’s Career in Schools

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