Priest with local ties accused of sex abuse

Father Chester Gawronski

ERIE, Pa. — A Pennsylvania state grand jury report released Tuesday listed a number of priests within the Erie Catholic Diocese for alleged sexual abuse against children over the decades. One of the names found on that list has local ties.

Father Chester Gawronski, a 1968 graduate of Cardinal Mindszenty High School, became a priest in the Diocese of Erie in 1976. In 1972, he was a member of the 151st graduating class of St. Mary’s Seminary College where he studied for the Diocese of Erie.

According to the grand jury report, Bishop Michael Murphy was notified August 1986 that Gawronski had allegedly fondled and masturbated a 13-to-14-year-old boy on multiple occasions from 1976 to 1977 under the pretext of showing the victim how to “check for cancer.” Complaints continued to be received for decades, according to the report.

In early 1987, the complaints were commonly made by parents who reported similar conduct with their sons. An internal Diocesan memorandum was obtained by the grand jury and indicated that the number of victims could be as high as 20.

Administrators within the Diocese became concerned about the negative publicity and potential legal liability. According to the report, they attempted to assure the families of the victims that action would be taken. Internally, the Diocese worked to compile data on the number of families affected and how to keep the matter secret, the report stated.

On Jan. 7, 1987, Father Glenn Whitman, head of the Diocese’s Clergy Personnel Office, wrote a letter to address a parent of one of Gawronski’s 13-year-old victims. Whitman wrote, among other things, “My only caution to you.. is to refrain from probing any more information about past events as it may raise undue concern and attention on the part of people who aren’t involved.” That same day, Whitman documented the need for “discretion” in another Diocesan communication to an interested party.

Diocesan records obtained by the grand jury through a subpoena served on Sept. 1, 2016, recorded the ever-growing list of affected and traumatized parishioners. A summary of potential families affected noted that the mother of the group of brothers that were molested continued to “be very angry about this whole thing” in a conversation with at least one other family on this list. She stated that “going public would be a distinct possibility should (Gawronski) ever be assigned to parish work.”

On Feb. 9, 1987, Gawronski provided the Diocese with a list of 41 possible victims. He confirmed at least 12 children as victims on who he had performed the “cancer check.”

Additional records obtained from the secret or confidential archives of the Diocese noted that in April 1987, Gawronski freely confessed to numerous instances of sexual abuse. He went to Chicago for psychological evaluations but denied any problems with boys. He was placed on a temporary leave of absence.

In addition, more victims reported Gawronski for criminal sex acts with children to the Diocese in 1988. In 1990, Bishop Donald Trautman took command of the Diocese. He received additional complaints in 1995 from a victim who allegedly had been molested at the age of 15 in 1986. The victim reported he fallen prey to Gawronski’s “cancer checks.”

From 1987 to 2002, Gawronski remained in active ministry. As recent as 2001, he was assigned to a five-year term as a chaplain for St. Mary’s Home in Erie.

In 2004, a 10-page letter was written to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome. In providing a basis for Gawronski’s removal of priesthood, Trautman stated that Gawronski identified, pursued, groomed and abused his victims. Trautman’s indictment of Gawronski’s decades of child sexual abuse was necessary to convince Rome to remove Gawronski from ministry, the report said.

In response to the grand jury report, current Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico expressed deep sorrow Tuesday for what he called “unimaginably cruel behavior” by priests against children in the Diocese of Erie and other Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro discussed the findings of the 900-page report Tuesday afternoon at the State Capitol in Harrisburg. Accompanied by victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in the church, Shapiro termed the abuse committed by clergy “corrupt and unconscionable.”

“The time of telling these victims to keep these truths to themselves has ended,” Shapiro said after presenting case after case of assault committed by clergy throughout Pennsylvania.

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