Priest admits long-ago molestation

Father Berning, 96, faces accusations from two men

The Cincinnati Enquirer/August 29, 2003
By Dan Horn

Catholic church officials are unsure what to do with a 96-year-old retired priest they say has admitted molesting children in Cincinnati more than 40 years ago.

Father John Berning, who retired and moved to Florida in 1970, is facing accusations from two men who say he abused them when they were children in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati confirmed Thursday it has received letters from Father Berning admitting to more than one instance of abuse during his career as a priest.

Father Berning could not be reached for comment. But in one of his letters, the priest acknowledged that he molested a boy in the early 1960s.

"As I remember there is only one day that I molested (the boy). I do not remember the day," Father Berning wrote in his October 2002 letter to the archdiocese. "With best wishes and kindest regards, I am sincerely yours in Christ."

The allegations against Father Berning are the oldest to arise in Cincinnati since the clergy abuse scandal began last year.

Criminal charges are impossible because the statute of limitations expired decades ago. And the church's new zero tolerance guidelines for removing abusive priests do not apply to priests who no longer serve in active ministry because of age or health problems.

The archdiocese's lawyer, Mark VanderLaan, said the church could consider steps to formally remove Father Berning from ministry or to defrock him.

"It's a possibility," VanderLaan said. "But his extremely advanced age is a factor that is supposed to be taken into consideration."

The number of allegations against Father Berning remained unclear Thursday. "It's safe to say there were substantiated allegations in the past," VanderLaan said.

He said Father Berning's accusers did not bring their allegations to the archdiocese until years after they say the abuse occurred, and long after Father Berning retired.

VanderLaan said he does not believe authorities were notified because the statute of limitations already would have expired.

One of Father Berning's accusers filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese last September, saying church officials should have known the priest was a threat. Another alleged victim filed suit Thursday in Florida against Father Berning.

Both lawsuits accuse the priest of repeatedly molesting children, sometimes immediately after they had served as altar boys for Mass.

Before his retirement, Father Berning was assigned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Margaret's of Cortona, both in Cincinnati.

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