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OKAWVILLE, Ill. • The Rev. Steven F. Poole is a rank-and-file priest with his own demons, including a history of theft and a rocky relationship with church hierarchy.

Now the troubled priest has broken from tradition by calling out his boss and openly accusing a fellow priest of sexually abusing him as a 14-year-old boy.

Echoing the core complaints of sex abuse scandals that have shaken the church, Poole alleges that the leader of the Belleville Diocese has mishandled and disregarded his complaint, allowing the now retired priest to continue in good standing.

“This is difficult because I truly do believe in the sacred bond between a bishop and his priests as co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord,” Poole, 48, wrote in an email last year to Bishop Edward Braxton, who oversees all the Roman Catholic churches in Southern Illinois.

“I realize that my words will probably make no difference to you based upon prior experience. However, it is important for me to set this out to attempt to clear my conscience.”

The five-page letter, along with additional correspondence obtained by the Post-Dispatch, chronicles an effort by Poole over multiple years to trigger action by the diocese.

The diocese, in turn, says in a written statement sent to the newspaper Thursday that it has thoroughly and properly responded to Poole’s allegations. Braxton declined to respond to a request for comment.

The diocese said its internal review board and office of child protection as well as state authorities reviewed “this situation on numerous occasions.”

“Several steps were originally taken under 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 of and concerned with the health and well-being of the individuals involved; those considerations must remain confidential.”

The accused priest — the Rev. Albert “Gene” Kreher — acknowledged in an interview this week that his behavior with Poole was inappropriate when Poole was a teenager, but said there was nothing sexual about the situation. He has never faced criminal charges or a civil lawsuit.

“I have had a lot of youth in my life but none needed to feel threatened,” Kreher, 78, said by telephone. “I thought I was being a good pastor trying to serve as a role model. If my erotic inclinations were turned loose they would not be directed toward young people.”

In hindsight, Kreher said, Poole needed somebody else to help him as a struggling boy.

Poole “needed a psychologist, professional help, which I am not,” Kreher said.

A 2010 letter Kreher wrote to Poole offered a different, less specific apology.

“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,” he wrote, according to a copy of the letter. “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.”

Asked about the apology letter, Kreher said: “The Bishop [Braxton] was telling me in part what to write. So I could not tell you what parts ended up in the letter itself.”

Asked about the reference to “shame,” he said: “That part I really don’t remember because it was not a shameful relationship.”

‘I kept it secret’

Poole described his side of the story and current struggles in a long interview this week.

He said Kreher befriended him in the early 1980s, when he was 14 and his parents were struggling to stay together. Poole said he became an altar boy and helped cut the grass at St. George Church in New Baden, where Poole grew up, 30 minutes east of St. Louis on Interstate 64.

Poole said he eventually started spending weekends with the priest, sleeping naked with him in the rectory and while on camping trips.

“He would hold me,” Poole said. “He would fondle me, kiss me and rub his genitals on me. He would tell me he loved me while he was doing those things. I was a boy, looking for a father figure.”

He said the relationship confused him. After about a year and a half, Poole said, he drifted away from Kreher.

“I began to want to hang around kids my own age,” Poole said. The priest “became very jealous. He said I was being disloyal. I withdrew from his bed. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“I was ashamed,” he added. “I kept it secret for years and years and years.”

Poole said he reported the alleged abuse to another priest in the early 1990s and didn’t immediately hear anything back about it.

While in college, he decided to pursue the priesthood.

“In spite of him, I still wanted to be a priest,” Poole said.

In 1997, one year after being ordained, Poole said, he received a call from the vicar general asking about the old allegations.

“I minimalized it and really denied” the allegations,” Poole said, adding that he was caught off guard by the call. “It scared me because it brought up a lot of bad memories and I wasn’t psychologically prepared to deal with it yet. I probably should have.”

Though he works in the same diocese, he said he hadn’t spoken to Kreher since his mother’s funeral in 2000. His mother, a devout Catholic, had been very close to Kreher and often had him over for meals.

Now at 48, Poole says he is about the same age as Kreher was when their relationship began.

“I am a middle-aged pastor today,” Poole said. “Sleeping with a 14-year-old boy is not what a pastor does.”

‘A lot of shame’

Poole’s career as a priest started to implode after his mother died of cancer 17 years ago. He said he took care of her in her final months.

Not long after her death, he was sentenced to probation and 100 hours of community service for stealing a large antique sign from an art gallery in Ladue in the middle of the afternoon. He also told police that he’d made up a story about a stranger trying to attack and rob him at a church in Breese.

In 2010, he was accused of stealing butter and switching a bar code tag on a mattress at Walmart. In 2011, he was arrested for taking an antique ashtray, the same year he was in detox for addiction to a prescription medication.

“I know people might say this is psychobabble,” Poole said. “I am not blaming my problems and laying them at the foot of what happened to me as a kid, but I think that had something to do with it. I was really confused at that stage and I was very vulnerable — an adult priest that I trusted used me and that turned into a lot of shame.”

Poole said parts of his abuse story started to come out during years of therapy and counseling. He said he told Braxton specifically about the alleged abuse in a private meeting on Easter in 2010.

Poole said he was disheartened by Braxton’s response, which he said wasn’t apologetic. Instead, he said, Braxton placed some of the burden of reconciliation on Poole by suggesting that he possibly sit down and confront his alleged abuser face to face.

The following month, Poole received the apology letter from Kreher which began: “I have delayed far too long to deal with something critical for both of us. I need to apologize very deeply for my commissions and omissions from years ago. Whatever my intentions, I did not do right by you.”

‘Investigated and resolved’

More recently, Poole has been struggling with Braxton over how to best handle two churches he’s been responsible for since 2014: St. Barbara’s in Okawville, and St. Anthony’s, in tiny Lively Grove.

In a recent letter to Braxton, Poole mentioned disagreements on how to handle what “seemed to be some financial irregularities and practices at both parishes” that came to Poole’s attention.

Poole wrote that the bishop wasn’t supporting him while some lay leaders at St. Anthony’s had grown vocal about not wanting Poole’s services as a priest. He also said parish leaders had rejected his efforts to have St. Anthony’s partner with St. Barbara’s.

The rural parishes, and many other parishes in the diocese, face the reality of having fewer priests these days to staff remote congregations. Many resist attempts to merge.

“The difficulties have reached the point where I have received threats of physical harm,” wrote Poole, wondering why his request to be reassigned wasn’t honored.

Poole told Braxton in the letter that his inaction paralleled the handling of the old sex abuse claims.

Braxton responded in a March 17, 2016, letter to Poole: “I remember well the very serious matter we discussed in my Residence six years ago. Contrary to your statement, your allegations were reported to the Review Board, thoroughly investigated and resolved. I do not see the parallel between that experience and the very serious difficulties you are now experiencing in both of the parishes that I have entrusted to your pastoral care.”

The bishop asked Poole to schedule a new meeting with him.

Poole said he didn’t do it based on advice from an independent church lawyer from out of state.

Under investigation

Poole said his therapist asked for permission to report the old sex abuse claims to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services last year. That report spurred a complaint filed in New Baden last month.

“The whole matter remains under investigation, so I am not going into detail,” said Scott Meinhardt, the police chief. “We are trying to investigate something that occurred 35 years ago. There are a lot of different factors at play.”

Also late last year, Poole contacted the Boy Scouts. He told them that he was troubled to see that Kreher was still listed as the chaplain for the Diocesan Catholic Committee on Scouting. The Boy Scouts took swift action.

“When we did learn of the allegations in 2016, we took action to preclude him from any further participation in the scouting program,” said Christine Rasure, spokeswoman for the Greater St. Louis Area Council of Boy Scouts.

Asked by telephone about the chaplain position, Kreher said he’d been working with only adult scout leaders. He said he resigned from his Scout commitments in recent months.

“I felt like I wasn’t serving them well to begin with,” the priest said. “For a long time, I felt that. It was a good time because I since have spent several days in the hospital.”

While in the hospital, he said, representatives of Children and Family Services visited him about the “nonsense” from the old claims by Poole.

But Poole said he remained tormented from their relationship decades ago.

He is steadfast in demanding that his diocese — and his bishop — set the record straight: “I am trying to move on in my life from being a victim to a survivor.”

Jesse Bogan is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.