The Rev. Albert E. “Gene” Kreher, a retired priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Belleville, admitted he regularly slept with but did not molest a 13-year-old boy three decades ago who sought help and later became a priest himself.
Kreher said Bishop Edward Braxton told him in 2010 to write a letter of apology to the Rev. Stephen Poole, but kept Kreher on as the overseer of the local Boy Scouts council.
In the letter, Kreher described his behavior involving the teen at St. George Catholic Church in New Baden as “very inappropriate.”
“I am sorry that I didn’t offer my apology a long time ago and regret the possibility that things I did a long time ago contribute to your present difficulties,” Kreher wrote. “I reach out to you praying that someday, somewhere, you will be able to find it in your power to forgive me.”
Kreher has denied he sexually abused Poole. He never faced any criminal charges and was not sued.
The one-page letter dated April 28, 2010, to Poole was leaked to the media and has led to the opening of a criminal investigation of Kreher by the New Baden Police Department and the removal of Kreher as chaplain to the local Boy Scouts council.
“The behavior included in these allegations is abhorrent and runs counter to everything for which the Boy Scouts of American stands. Upon learning of these allegations in 2016, we took action to preclude this individual from any further participation in the Scouting program,” said Effie Delimarkos, national director of communications for the Boy Scouts of America.
In an interview Wednesday, Kreher said his behavior included sleeping with but not molesting the boy. He said he also routinely kissed the boy on the cheek but not while in bed. Kreher’s letter stated, “I acknowledge that parts of my relationship with you were very inappropriate and then to be repeated over a long period of time only adds to the shame.”
Poole alleged that Kreher, then 45, slept naked and kissed, fondled him and rubbed his genitals against him.
“Once he asked me, ‘What will you think someday about having slept with your pastor?’” Poole said in an interview with the BND.
Asked why he used the word “shame” in his letter, Kreher, 78, replied, “I’m at a loss for words why I would have written that.” Kreher said Braxton dictated part of the letter, but he was not able to identify which parts.
Braxton could not be reached for comment. The diocese issued the following statement to the News-Democrat:
“Over the past 17 years, the Diocese Office of Child Protection, the Diocesan Review Board, state agencies and state authorities have reviewed this situation on numerous occasions. Several steps were taken under (former Bishop Wilton Gregory) and more recently under Bishop Braxton.
“As always, the first and most important consideration is to insure the protection of minors. The bishop must also be aware and concerned with the health and well-being of the individuals involved; those considerations must remain confidential.
“The diocese is committed to adhering to its Child Protection Policy, and will continue to assist victims and their families in furtherance of that policy and its ministry, and requests prayers for all the individuals involved and their families.”
Kreher told the BND he regularly slept with Poole when he was a troubled 13-year-old whose parents attended Kreher’s church. Kreher said he slept with Poole while both wore pajamas and that he often kissed the youth on the cheek but not while they were in bed. He denied any sexual abuse of Poole.
“I never had erotic intentions toward Stephen Poole,” said Kreher, who explained that his purpose in befriending the youth was to counsel him.
“I wanted to be a presence,” Kreher said of his relationship with the youth. “I was reaching out to him. Obviously, it didn’t work. I really should have stepped back completely. He needed a lot more than me in terms of psychological help.”
Although the allegations were brought to Braxton’s attention in 2010, Poole said Kreher was allowed to remain the head of the Catholic Committee on Scouting for six years. He was removed in November after a complaint from the national Boy Scout Headquarters in Irvine, Texas.
Kreher’s involvement with scouting was primarily ceremonial and involved direct contact with children only when he passed out religious medals at an annual ceremony each October, he said.
Asked why he was removed from the Diocesan Boy Scout council, Kreher said, “That’s because of the rumblings from Poole.”
In addition, civil authorities, such as the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and local police, were not notified about the allegations as required by the diocese’s Child Protection Policy, Poole said. He also said he was not notified of the results of the Diocesan Review Board inquiry, as required by the church policy.
New Baden Police Chief Scott Meinhardt confirmed Wednesday there is an “open and active” investigation into Kreher. The statute of limitations regarding a criminal charge has long expired.
Today, Poole, 48, is the pastor of parishes in Okawville and Lively Grove in Southern Illinois.
Poole said he felt repelled by Kreher’s attention. “When I tried to get a girlfriend he became enraged. I wanted to date, but he became jealous.” Poole said that at age 15 he finally broke away from Kreher.
In 2010, Poole faced criminal charges and difficulties from alcohol that led to felony charges and eventually probation for shoplifting from antique shops and retail outlets. He said he still undergoes counseling.
Poole said he did not send the letter to the media. When Poole recently received a telephone call from a BND reporter about the letter, he contacted Belleville attorney Mike Weilmuenster, who won a $6 million lawsuit against the diocese in 2011 concerning sexual abuse by the Rev. Raymond Kownacki, who was removed from his ministry in 1996.
Weilmuenster said Poole is keeping his options open on whether to file a lawsuit. He said he agreed become involved as a way of making sure that Poole’s recovery from the alleged sexual abuse isn’t compromised.
“Not only was he abused by a priest in the Belleville Diocese as a child. After reporting this to the bishop, he continued to be victimized and abused.” This referred to what Poole said was “shoddy treatment” from Braxton when he met with him about Kreher six years ago.
According to a letter provided by Weilmunster, which purports to be from Braxton to Poole, dated March 17, 2016, Braxton wrote, “I remember well the very serious matter we discussed in my residence six years ago ... your allegations were reported to the Review Board, thoroughly investigated and resolved.” The letter made no reference to sexual abuse and did not mention Kreher by name.
Poole said he took the complaint to Braxton “as a way to prevent possible further abuse to children.”
The matter twice was referred to the Diocesan Review Board, which decides whether priests should be removed from ministry for various behavior, including sexual abuse of children, but disciplinary action was not taken, Kreher said.
The matter first came to the attention of diocesan officials in 1997, when former Vicar General James Margason investigated. It’s not clear who notified diocesan officials then.
At that time, Poole had just been ordained and didn’t want to get involved, even as a victim, with the intense controversy in Southern Illinois and nationally over priest sexual abuse of minors, he said. Poole said he told Margason that nothing significant occurred.
Kreher said that at that time he was asked to undergo a psychological evaluation by a psychologist from Saint Louis University, a school operated by Jesuit priests.
“I decided I would be as honest with them as I could be,” Kreher said. In response to the psychologist’s request, Kreher said he wrote the story of his life that ended up being 42 pages. Kreher said that the psychologist reviewed Kreher’s lengthy account, which he said took two weeks to write, and determined, “that I was not a pedophile.”
Gregory, now the archbishop of Atlanta, was bishop of Belleville at the time. Gregory could not be reached.
Poole said that despite requirements of the diocese in response to nationwide concern over sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, the matter was not referred to the local Diocesan Review Board.
During his meeting with Braxton on Easter Sunday in 2010, Poole said he brought a fellow priest, the late Rev. Jack Joyce, a longtime friend, to the meeting. But Poole said Joyce was not allowed inside the bishop’s residence.
“I felt trapped because it was my understanding there would be a witness,” Poole said. He said Braxton questioned him about his sexuality and asked whether Poole had ever molested children. Poole said he had not.
“He told me Father Kreher is too old to possibly be a danger to children. ... I felt he blamed me for having been abused by Gene Kreher.”
Poole said that he left the bishop’s residence in tears and then told Joyce, who waited outside, the details of the meeting, which Joyce then transcribed in a notebook. Joyce died last year. A sealed envelope labeled “Fr. Poole’s transcript and letter from Gene K.” was found in Joyce’s belongings.
After the meeting with Braxton, Poole said the diocese sent him to a rehabilitation center operated by the Catholic Church in Maryland that is primarily designed to treat pedophiles. Poole said that while he was sent to the center because of his criminal behavior and addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol, he became angry that after reporting sexual abuse he ended up being sent away.
The relationship between Poole and Braxton is damaged, Poole said, but he continues to want to serve his diocese despite what he says are long-standing problems at his current assignments in Okawville and Lively Grove.
“He’s my pastor. He is the shepherd of the diocese. He is and continues to be my pastor,” Poole said of Braxton. “But I have been hurt by him very deeply. I trusted him, and that trust has been broken.”