Priest to return after porn investigation, but questions remain

The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul as seen from 18th and the Parkway. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

One name stands out on an otherwise innocuous list of upcoming clerical assignments issued this month by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: the Rev. Louis Kolenkiewicz.

He’s scheduled to return from a leave of absence on June 19, and become a parochial vicar at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, around the corner from the archdiocese’s administrative offices. What’s left unsaid in the announcement is the reason why Kolenkiewicz has been on leave since 2015.

Bucks County prosecutors investigated the priest in 2011 for more than 12,000 pornographic images found on a computer he used at St. Bede the Venerable Parish in Holland, Bucks County, where he had been assigned. And while they did not file charges, they said they remained so concerned about the priest returning to active ministry that they helped provoke his suspension two years ago.

District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub described the news of Kolenkiewicz’s reinstatement as a surprising development after a frustrating investigation he said was hobbled by the church’s failure to preserve evidence found a decade ago and leaving local law enforcement in the dark.

“Wow,” Weintraub said this week when told by the Inquirer and Daily News that Kolenkiewicz had been assigned to the signature cathedral for the five-county archdiocese.

Church officials removed Kolenkiewicz from St. Bede because of concerns that images of minors may have been among the photos he allegedly downloaded on a parish computer.

Ultimately, authorities filed no charges. The archdiocese has since determined that the 49-year-old priest “is suitable for ministry and that he does not pose any danger to minors or other individuals,” Kenneth Gavin, an archdiocesan spokesman, said in an email. As a parochial vicar, Kolenkiewicz can celebrate Mass and perform other priestly functions.

But after nearly 15 years of investigation, prosecution, and litigation over sex-abuse allegations involving Philadelphia-area priests, the Kolenkiewicz assignment reflects how the church’s internal response to cases continues to exasperate even law enforcement, and fuels skepticism among some about whether the institution really has begun to, or wants to, change.

“The mentality has not changed,” said Chester County mother and longtime Catholic Kathy Kane, 50, whose child-clergy-abuse website Catholics4Change.com reported in 2015 that Kolenkiewicz was seen performing clerical duties even after the archdiocese publicly stated he had been forbidden from doing so. “I cannot imagine a parish Catholic school teacher caught with 12,000 porn images and investigated for possible child porn would then be given a job at archdiocesan headquarters.”

The backstory is a long one.

In 2005, Kolenkiewicz admitted to using a computer in St. Bede’s rectory to view graphic images, Gavin said. But the archdiocese did not contact police in Northampton Township or the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office. Instead, Gavin said, the archdiocese contacted the FBI’s Innocent Images Unit, after the images were first reviewed by an outside agency. The FBI told the archdiocese the material didn’t include any images of minors, he said. (An FBI spokesperson declined to comment.)

In 2011, the cleric’s case got a fresh look after another scathing Philadelphia grand jury investigation. Its 124-page, damning report detailed the archdiocese’s underwhelming response to decades of allegations about priests who abused children, even after an earlier comprehensive grand jury probe had delivered a similarly critical assessment of the church in 2005.

A random search of Kolenkiewicz’s electronic devices in 2011 showed that he had allegedly viewed porn again, Gavin said, and he was placed on leave. The church handed over its information to the Center City law firm it hired to review past allegations, which then forwarded it to the district attorney in Delaware County, where the priest had been most recently stationed.

Bucks County authorities said they were contacted by their Delaware County counterparts and attempted a full investigation. A pediatrician hired by Bucks investigators said she believed several images in the pornographic cache were of children, prosecutors said.

But investigators in Doylestown and Northampton Township struggled with their efforts because the archdiocese said it no longer had the original computer, and no one had made copies of what had been on the computer’s hard drive when it was first seized — something that Weintraub said police would have done if they had been contacted in the first place. What remained had passed through so many hands over the years that the evidence had chain-of-custody problems. Gavin said the church was never told to retain the original computer.

“Even with our best forensic analysis, we were unable to tell where the images had come from, whether they were downloaded or simply viewed, or any other information about their origin,” Weintraub said. Reluctantly, his predecessor, David Heckler, agreed that no charges could be filed — but with an understanding that the church would remove the priest from access to children, both Weintraub and Heckler said in interviews.

Kolenkiewicz underwent treatment for “his issues” with pornography, Gavin said, and returned to active ministry in 2014. His electronic devices were monitored, and he was treated to unannounced visits from the archdiocese’s Office of Investigations.

“[H]e has been working diligently on the path toward recovery while cooperating fully with his monitoring and rehabilitation plan,” Gavin wrote in an email this week.

In 2015, Northampton Township Detective Charles Pinkerton was alarmed to see Kolenkiewicz back on duty at St. Bede. He and Heckler met at the local police department with the head of the archdiocese’s Office of Investigations and expressed their displeasure, both men said in interviews.

“What I threatened back then was to have a press conference, which is sort of atypical,” Heckler recalled Friday. He demanded that Kolekniewicz be removed from St. Bede and kept away from children, which prompted the priest’s being placed on administrative duty. Pinkerton said “there was an understanding there that the archdiocese was going to reexamine the matter.”

Gavin said an archdiocesan investigative review board, made up of former city prosecutors and experts on both sex offenders and sexual-assault victims, unanimously approved of Kolenkiewicz returning to active ministry. Archbishop Charles Chaput signed off on the decision this month.

In addition to his assignment at the Basilica, the priest will also serve the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters at their Convent of Divine Love on Green Street near 22nd. The archdiocese’s assurances that Kolenkiewicz doesn’t pose any danger to children doesn’t sit well with Barbara Dorris, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“I think this speaks to the arrogance [of the church], the idea that they’re untouchable,” she said. “There’s no punishment. He just gets a new assignment. It’s going to take the people in the pews standing up and saying, ‘If he stays, we go,’ for something to change.”