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Cincinnati priest sentenced for rape; questions remain

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati says that a priest who pled guilty Thursday to raping a minor 30 years ago will now face a laicization process at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The priest’s guilty plea closes the latest chapter in a story that has seen allegations of misconduct in several Cincinnati parishes, and the forced resignation of a bishop who failed to act on abuse allegations. But local media reports have raised the possibility of additional allegations against the priest, and it is not clear exactly the process by which the archdiocese will seek his laicization.

Fr. Geoff Drew in court in 2019. Credit: Hamilton County Court/public domain.

“Father Geoff Drew will never again have a priestly assignment in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati or any other diocese,” Archbishop Dennis Schnurr said Dec. 2, after Drew announced a guilty plea one day before his criminal trial was due to begin.

Drew was removed from ministry in 2019 over unrelated charges of misconduct, and was arrested that year, charged with nine counts of rape. The priest admitted Thursday to sexually assaulting a parish altar boy between 1988 and 1991; the assaults began when the victim was ten years old.

His guilty plea Thursday saw him sentenced to seven years in prison and lifetime registration as a sex offender. Drew will be credited for 27 months served in prison already; his victim was consulted about the priest’s sentence.

Drew was not yet a priest when he committed the sexual assaults for which he pled guilty. He was instead working as a parish music minister at St. Jude Parish in Cincinnati. He entered seminary in 1999 and was ordained a priest in 2004.

Additional allegations

According to local media reports, testimony at Drew’s trial was set to bring forward additional misconduct allegations against him:

  • that he had sex with his initial victim several years after the initial abuse, when the victim was a teenager;
  • that he had a grooming relationship with another young boy while he was employed as a layman at St. Jude Parish.
  • that while Drew was in the seminary, he had a grooming relationship with a teenage boy which involved inappropriate touching;
  • that he habitually touched the backs, shoulders, and faces of middle school boys while serving as a priest from 2006 to 2009 at St. Rita School in Dayton, Ohio.
  • that in 2012, Drew may have engaged an erotic masseur or prostitute while traveling for parish business.

Thursday’s guilty plea precludes court testimony about those allegations. They did not result in further criminal charges against Drew because the statute of limitations on relevant crimes has expired.

According to local media reports, boys at St. Rita School allegedly complained in a letter to the school principal in 2006 about Drew, saying the priest’s habit of touching them made them uncomfortable. One witness alleges that the school’s principal dismissed the boys’ concerns and directed them to apologize to the priest.

Jennifer Schack, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, told The Pillar Thursday that “there is no record in Fr. Drew’s file of any child protection allegations during his time at St. Rita School. During interviews and reviews conducted after Fr. Drew was removed from ministry the allegation from his time at St. Rita first came to our attention. To this date we have never seen a copy of the letter referenced nor do we have any official record of it.”

“The principal of St. Rita School in 2006 is long retired and no longer works for the archdiocese,” Schack added.

On allegations about Drew’s time as a seminarian, the archdiocese told The Pillar that “Fr. Drew was never accused of sexual assault with any minors while he was a seminarian.”

The Pillar also asked whether there had been any investigation into the priest who supervised Drew while he was employed as a layman at St. Jude’s Parish, where he committed sexual assault.

The archdiocese said it had conducted a thorough review.

“After Father Geoff Drew was removed from ministry on July 23, 2019, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati conducted interviews and reviewed any existing files at all of his previous places of employment and priestly assignments,” Schack told The Pillar.

Fr. Bob Buening, the pastor who employed Drew while he abused at least one minor, died in 2017, the archdiocese said.

Bishop Binzer

Public allegations of misconduct against Drew surfaced two years ago, and resulted in the forced resignation of a Cincinnati auxiliary bishop who failed to report allegations against Drew to other archdiocesan officials.

Drew was removed from ministry in July 2019, after it was reported that he had sent a series of inappropriate text messages to a 17-year-old.

After he was removed, it emerged that in 2013 and 2015, parents had complained to a diocesan official, Bishop Joseph Binzer, that Drew inappropriately touched their sons.

Binzer made reports to the police, who did not press charges, but the bishop did not tell any other diocesan official about the pattern allegations against Fr. Drew.

In 2018, Binzer, serving as chair of the archdiocesan personnel board, approved Drew’s transfer to a parish with a large Catholic school. He again failed at that time to tell any diocesan officials about the allegations he had received. At the parish where he was transferred, Drew began inappropriately texting his teenage parishioner.

After Binzer’s omission was reported in the media the Vatican ordered an investigation. In May 2020, the 65-year-old Binzer was permitted to resign from his ministry as an auxiliary bishop in the Cincinnati archdiocese. He did not face charges of a canonical crime.

“We obviously made serious mistakes in our handling of this matter, for which we are very sorry,” Archbishop Schnurr told reporters in 2019, adding that he would amend the process by which the background of priests was scrutinized before they were given assignments.

Binzer has since been appointed a parish pastor and director of hospital ministries in the archdiocese.

Next steps

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati said Thursday that since Drew has now been convicted and sentenced in criminal court, his case will be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for canonical laicization. But, the congregation, which is competent to handle the canonical cases of priests accused of sexual abuse, may not actually be competent to oversee a canonical case against Drew.

The sexual assault Drew has admitted was committed before he was ordained, or even a seminarian, and thus does not formally constitute a canonical crime under the Church’s canon law. The allegations known publicly which do pertain to Drew’s time as a priest — grooming behavior and inappropriate texting — do not amount to canonical crimes for which a priest can ordinarily be forcibly laicized, or dismissed from the clerical state.

Because of that situation, Drew’s case might well be redirected to the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which could attempt to laicize the priest using “special faculties” extended by the pope, or could request that the priest voluntarily petition for laicization.

Drew’s now-41-year-old victim spoke at the priest’s sentencing hearing Thursday expressed obviously conflicted emotions. He both told Drew he forgives him for the abuse, and told the priest “fuck you” from the witness stand.

The victim also reportedly alleged in the courtroom that Drew had abused him in the presence of another person.

“You killed me. I’ve been through hell,” the victim said, adding that Drew would be accountable to God for his crimes.

For its part, the archdiocese asked Catholics Thursday to “join us in continuing to pray for all victims of the horrific evil of abuse.”

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