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Pennsylvania church officials helped ex-priest get job at Disney World knowing he was 'sexual predator,' report says

A Catholic church in Pittsburgh. Bishops and other church leaders in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over a period of 70 years, persuading victims not to report the abuse and police officers not to investigate it, according to a grand jury report issued on Aug. 14, 2018. (Jeff Swensen/The New York Times)

For 15 years, a man reportedly piloting trains at Walt Disney World in Orlando kept a dark secret locked away.

When Edward Ganster died at 71 in 2014, his wife lovingly recalled her husband as a man of deep faith who enjoyed his job. "He really loved trains," Mary Ganster said in an obituary, the Orlando Sentinel reported this week. "His witness for Jesus was so strong."

But its Ganster's life before arriving in Florida that has suddenly snapped into sharper focus. On Tuesday, August 14, officials in Pennsylvania released a sweeping 1,300-page report on Catholic priest sex abuse. The investigation, one of the most comprehensive investigations into clergy abuse and the subsequent coverup, identified more than 1,000 children victimized by 300 priests in Pennsylvania over seven decades.

"Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades," the grand jury wrote.

Edward Ganster was among the priests named in the scalding document. Before leaving the church voluntarily in 1990, he worked at a number of parishes in Pennsylvania. According to the report, three young boys accused Ganster of sexual abuse. Although church officials knew of at least one allegation, Ganster was allowed to leave the priesthood on his own and relocated to Florida. With a reference from a church monsignor, he was hired on at the Magic Kingdom, the grand jury report states.

Walt Disney World did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ganster was ordained in 1971 and started his career as an assistant pastor in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. According to the report, in 1977, a 13-year-old boy confided to his parents he had been abused by Ganster on an overnight trip to the beach. The child "told his parents that Ganster hurt him and got in bed with him. He also stated that something happened in the confessional."

The boy's mother immediately reported the incident to a monsignor, who said "he would take care of the situation," adding that "Ganster would be given some counseling and would be removed from the parish," the report states. "The following Sunday at Mass, Ganster announced he was being reassigned." The victim, however, still suffered from "broken relationships and anger issues resulting from the abuse." His mother again reported the abuse to the church in 2005.

The incident was allegedly not isolated. In 2002, a 37-year-old married father of two approached the local diocese with his own allegation about Ganster. According to the report, this victim stated that when he was a 14-year-old altar boy, he "was fondled and groped" by Ganster, the report says.

"On one occasion, Ganster dragged the boy across a living room floor, pulling him by the underwear," the report states. "Ganster also beat the victim repeatedly, once using a metal cross."

The victim again approached the diocese in 2004 with the same allegation.

"Despite having two reports and having given counseling to the victim, the Diocese did not report the abuse to the Northampton County District Attorney's Office until 2007," the report states.

In 2015, the mother of a third victim reported her son had also been abused by Ganster in 1977.

The priest's time in the clergy ground to a halt in the late 1980s. According to the grand jury report, in 1987 Ganster was put on sick leave. The following year, he was sent to a hospital in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He requested to be laicized - or withdrawn from the clergy - and the diocese agreed in 1990. Ganster indicated he wished to marry a woman he had met during his hospital stay, the report says.

According to the report, Thomas Welsh, the Bishop of Allentown, discussed Ganster's marriage as well as his past issues in a letter to the Bishop of Orlando.

Referring to Ganster's wife, Welsh wrote, "I don't know her problems," the report says. "His were at least partially sexual and led to my decision that I could not reassign him."

The report notes that Ganster did make his wish to work at Disney known to the church.

"As he was in the process of being laicized, Ganster wrote the Diocese indicating he would be seeking employment at Walt Disney World and hoped to use the Diocese as a reference," the report states. "Despite knowing Ganster was a sexual predator, Monsignor Muntone responded to Ganster's request for a reference by writing."

Monsignor Muntone replied to Ganster: "I am quite sure that the Diocese will be able to give you a positive reference in regard to the work you did during your years of service here as a priest."

The report notes the reference led to Ganster's employment at the theme park.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Ganster died in 2014 due to a "weak heart," his wife told the paper in his obituary. In the same article, Ganster's widow said her husband had "had a breakdown, which moved him to seek laicization from the pope."

She has not commented on the allegations in this week's grand jury report.

"His footprint in life was very large," Mary Ganster told the Sentinel in 2014.

This article was written by Kyle Swenson, a reporter for The Washington Post.