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Court overturns one of priest's sex abuse convictions

May 13, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has affirmed one conviction of a former St. James School chaplain convicted last year of sexually abusing two students at the school in the 1980s, while opening the way for a new trial in the second.

In April 2002, a Washington County Circuit jury found Kenneth Kirk Behrel, 53, guilty of one count of abusing a Virginia man, now 37, who was a minor in his care at the time of the abuse.

That conviction for abuse of a child and 12-year prison sentence were unaffected by last week's decision by the state's second-highest court.

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But the court ruled in a similar case tried two months earlier that Washington County Circuit Judge John H. McDowell erred when he allowed the Virginia man to testify about other incidents of abuse involving a former student from Frederick, Md., during the February 2002 trial.

In the case of the Frederick man, now 35, the higher court remanded the case back to Washington County for possible retrial because of that error. A 12-year consecutive prison sentence in that case is overturned along with the conviction.

Both cases stemmed from the 1980s while the men were 15-year-old students at the elite prep school near Hagerstown. Behrel, a former Episcopalian priest, was the school chaplain. Both former students testified at the trials.

Prosecutors last spring described Behrel to two different juries as a predator who used drugs, porn, religious favors and attention to lure his victims to his on-campus apartment. Behrel then forced himself on the troubled boys, prosecutors said.

In affirming the conviction involving the Virginia man, the higher court said that while Behrel denied the allegations, the victim testified to the abuse and the prosecution had "ample independent evidence."

In the trial in which the Frederick man was the victim, the higher court pointed out that the trial judge allowed the Virginia man to testify about "other crimes" involving Behrel. It was that testimony that provided the reversible error.

The now defrocked priest left St. James in 1985 and was transferred to a parish in Illinois. He left the priesthood in 2001.

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