A Cross to Bear

Joyce gets nailed for tall talk and tiny action

Just when it seemed the whole Catholic-clerics-caught-with-their-cassocks-up saga had calmed down, the creepy ex-priest St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce calls one of the most predatory pedophiles she's ever prosecuted was arrested in Highland, Ill., hiding in a closet with a blanket over his head.

That somebody actually got arrested in the midst of this ongoing immorality tale had the New York Times on the phone with Joyce and an ABC network news crew showing up at her office.

However, James Beine's story is less than it appears -- after all, he was thrown out of the church in 1977, seemingly more for heresy than pedophilia. But busting the public-school counselor did give the circuit attorney a chance to rise above her critics and show that, unlike her local prosecutorial brethren, at least she was doing the right thing.

It hasn't been easy for Joyce, who's been catching hell from the Holy Roman Empire and the self-righteous Savonarolas on the P-D editorial page. With all this grief, you'd think she was either banging on the sacristy door with a search warrant or offering blanket amnesty to all pedophile priests.

She's done neither.

After a slow start, for which the Post-Dispatch castigated her, she had the audacity to ask Archbishop Justin Rigali for a meeting and then had the temerity to tell the public they should contact her directly about priests who moonlight as sex abusers.

Joyce still hasn't cuffed an active priest, but that hasn't stopped the harsh judgment being hurled at her from the pulpit. During his sermon at a recent noonday Mass downtown at the Old Cathedral, the Rev. Richard Quirk criticized "our prosecutor" for portraying herself as a "good Catholic girl" during her campaign but turning around to accuse the archbishop of paying hush money to keep victims quiet.

When she ran in 2000, Joyce let it be known that she is a graduate of Bishop DuBourg High School, but she never claimed to be a member of the ladies' sodality in her parish. That she already had been chastised at the Old Cathedral gave Joyce pause about attending Mass on Palm Sunday.

"It's one thing to hear you're being criticized from the pulpit. It's another thing to be sitting there hearing it," says Joyce.

Sweating the next sermon isn't a worry for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch or Robert Haida, state's attorney for St. Clair County, Ill. Haida was "missing in action" during the crisis in the Belleville Diocese in the '90s, when at least a dozen priests were accused of sex abuse, says St. Louis' own David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. McCulloch has been similarly quiet during the current fiasco.

Clohessy has been busy handling media inquiries. His humble abode on Arsenal Street has been visited by CNN, People magazine and the New York Times. Last week, he was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show -- for the second time. He gives Joyce a "solid B" for her handling of this sticky situation.

"What she did that was significant and effective was, she sent a strong public signal that 'If you have information, share it with me -- I'll pursue it.' In the 12 years I've been involved with this issue, I've never seen a prosecutor do that," says Clohessy.

Joyce's simple announcement and use of the media is only shocking in that it shocks anyone. Sex abuse is a crime; that's why there's a hotline for it. Somehow the church has skated through this as if it's purely an ecclesiastical matter.

Following the church's logic, if a priest robbed a 7-Eleven, chances are, Rigali would give the cash back, have the insurance company make a settlement and then tell the padre to dump the ski mask and .45 into the River des Peres. Why call the police? It's been taken care of. It's an internal matter.

Since Joyce made her public plea, her office has received more than 50 calls, about 20 of them related to Beine. Despite her depiction of Beine as one of the worst pedophile sex predators she's ever investigated, the initial charges were just three counts accusing of him exposing himself to students at Patrick Henry Elementary School. Joyce expects more charges against Beine, and it appears other cases are in the pipeline.

Says Joyce, "I could telegraph every move of my investigation to the media before I do it, and that would really screw my investigation.

"People need to connect the dots ... My job is not to reassure every skeptic about anything they ask me. My job is to conduct an effective investigation and try to make the city safer."

While Joyce draws fire from priests for backing her talk with a little bit of action, Rigali can't seem to get ahead of this scandal with word or deed.

The archbishop's media tour last week had him doing what he should have done weeks ago: talk about the sordid situation publicly and turn down the heat by taking the heat. But it didn't go well. If Rigali weren't an archbishop, it might have been understandable to feel sorry for him. Archbishops aren't used to being questioned, so when Rigali spoke, he seemed skittish, far from the confident cleric speaking ex cathedra.

It didn't help when the P-D overplayed its one-on-one with the archbishop, calling it Rigali's "first major interview" about the scandal. Radio and TV had done their interviews the day before. And the Page One banner headline -- "Rigali says abuse is intolerable" -- hardly qualified as news.

In the following days, callers to local talk radio objected to the perceived lack of respect shown Rigali during his public tour, so the media joined Joyce as targets of Catholic backlash. For Joyce, there is an obvious risk to having priests preach against her from the pulpit and alienated Catholics remembering this come election time.

And Joyce isn't expecting any plenary indulgences from the chancery on Lindell to commute her sentence in Purgatory.

"At this point," Joyce says, "I'll settle for anything short of excommunication."