Bishop visits small-town church in local abuse scandal

Monday, May 6, 2002

SESSER, Ill. -- After traveling to the Vatican to discuss sexual abuse by priests with the pope, U.S. Conference of Bishops President Wilton Gregory came to a small-town church that has been hit in the most personal way by the growing national scandal.

The Saturday meeting with members of St. Mary's Church to talk about a priest in this coal-mining town marked the first time since the clergy sex abuse scandal broke that the country's most powerful Catholic bishop has had to address such allegations in his own district.

Last week, the Belleville Diocese's Fitness Review Board removed the Rev. Edward Balestrieri from the pulpit of the small church in Sesser, after the Trenton Diocese relayed an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor while Balestrieri worked in that state in the 1970s. Gregory said the allegations were made by a "young man."

"Father Ed," as St. Mary's parishioners called the priest who had served them in this Southern Illinois community since 1985, had left town before church members learned of the allegations last Wednesday, in a letter from Gregory. The 71-year-old Balestrieri was not accused of misconduct at St. Mary's, and remains at an undisclosed location.

Gregory told reporters after Saturday's half-hour meeting that it's never easy to discuss the topic of alleged sexual abuse by priests, whether it's in Vatican City with the Pope, as he did with U.S. cardinals last month, or in this town of 2,100 in the country's heartland.

"Whether they belong to parishes that have thousands of households or to parishes with only a few dozen, you're talking to people about their children and about their faith," said Gregory.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting.

The 411-member U.S. Conference of Bishops is expected to decide at the group's June meeting in Dallas how the church should handle such allegations, including ones that are decades old.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: