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How School District Handled Beine Raises Eyebrows, Questions

Apr 2, 2002 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

At a time when the St. Louis School Board should be rebuilding its trust with the public, it is raising eyebrows with its handling of a case of a former priest-turned-school-counselor who is accused of sexual abuse.

James A. Beine, 60, faces felony charges of exposing himself to two boys last year at Patrick Henry Elementary School, where he worked until last month. Beine, also known as Mar James, was booted from the Catholic priesthood 25 years ago over accusations of sexual abuse. He resigned last month following disclosures that the Archdiocese of St. Louis had paid $110,000 to settle two suits alleging abuse. But questions remain about why Beine was allowed to return to work after being removed from working with students when suits were filed beginning in 1994.

Last week, School Board member Bill Haas tried to get the board to investigate why Beine was allowed to continue working with students, even after the suits were filed.

Haas said Monday that he had tried to make his motion early in the session but was told that there were other matters to handle first. He tried to bring it up at the end of the meeting, he said. But before he could make his motion, another board member moved to adjourn the meeting.

Haas, along with board members Rochell Moore and Amy Hilgemann, had called for a full investigation. The board rejected the ideas on Tuesday, but on Thursday, board President Harold Brewster said the board would investigate.

But by appearing to stonewall -- first by saying that there was no paper trail and thus nothing to investigate, and then ignoring the calls of some board members to look into the situation -- the board has raised questions. Can it conduct an impartial investigation of what happened?

Moore and Hilgemann say the investigation ought to be left to Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

In any case, an investigation should answer these questions: How was Beine hired in the first place? Are there adequate background checks on potential teachers and others who deal with children? Who gave approval for Beine to continue working with youngsters after suits were filed against him in 1994? And if Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds (who was not superintendent in 1994) is correct that he knew nothing of last year's allegations against Beine, why didn't he?

Haas believes that the School Board of 1994 deserves much of the blame for how that matter was handled. In that year, Beine was removed from contact with children after a suit was filed against him, but he eventually returned to his duties as a counselor. "To put a potential predator back into a position where he's working with students is an inexcusable decision," he said. "The mentality at the time may have been to give Beine the benefit of the doubt, but that's not something that can be done in a case like this one. Parents entrust their students to the school system each day and our job is to make sure that those students are safe."

Haas thinks an investigation is necessary immediately. "There may be lessons to be learned," he said.

That's an understatement. Many lessons are to be learned, starting when Beine started working for the school system.

The public might have been better served had the School Board decided to hire an independent investigator instead of using its staff attorney Ken Brostron and district security chief Charles McCrary. While this should not be taken as a criticism of either man, both who have solid reputations, the delay and initial unwillingness to deal with this issue may hurt the board's credibility.

Still, the bottom line is this: School is no place for sexual predators. Children should be safe when they go to school, especially from teachers, counselors and other adults who work with them. The School Board should ensure their safety. To do anything less is to fail the students, the parents and -- ultimately -- the taxpayers.

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