Cumberland church’s hiring of sex offender alarms parents

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CUMBERLAND — A man convicted of sex crimes against children nearly three decades ago in Massachusetts has spent the years since his release from prison back in his hometown of Cumberland, where he became part of the Congregational Church.

But Eugene Weir’s hiring by the church about a year ago as a backup custodian is now raising concern from parents of children who attend church preschool programs.

The 282 Main St. church operates the Main Street Children’s Center, and has for several decades rented space to the Cumberland Community Nursery School, a parent-facilitated cooperative preschool.

One parent of two CCNS children, who asked not to be identified, said Oct. 4 that “as much as I hope Mr. Weir, being a member of the community, is healed, and is in a better spot and has made his own amends … I feel, and I share the feelings with the majority of our parents, that it is inappropriate for him to be associated with a church that houses two schools.”

Diane Bennekamper, the church’s senior minister, said Oct. 3 that Weir is only a substitute for the part-time custodian, “so the number of hours that he might work in a week could be zero, or it could be four or five.”

Weir only works weekend evenings, when no children are around, she said, adding that “most of this year he’s done no work.”

“We have 20 years of experience with Eugene being in this community, and we’ve had preschools in this building the whole time he’s been here,” Bennekamper noted. “He’s an active member of the church, sings in the choir, participates in Bible study, and has never once provided any concern.”

The church is organizing a community educational forum to offer tips on how to keep children safe, the minister said. It is planned to be held at the church at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18.

The 74-year-old Weir’s profile on the Maine Sex Offender Registry, where he is a lifetime registrant, reports that he was convicted in Middlesex Superior Court in Massachusetts in 1990 on two counts of rape and abuse of a child. According to the registry, Weir was sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison, but the site does not say how many years he served.

Weir did not respond to a request for comment and no one responded when a reporter knocked on the door of Orchard Road home.

Bennekamper was a new co-pastor when Weir returned to Cumberland in the late 1990s. She recalled community being “very much up in arms.” The church had representatives from the Cumberland County Childhood Abuse and Neglect Council meet with community members.

“When he first came back to town, we were very active in educating ourselves and the community about sex offenders,” she recalled. “We needed to have a sense of who Gene was, and what life was going to be like with him and for him. But he’s never once given us any reason to think that he’s a danger to any child here.”

All Weir’s offenses involved children in his own family, Bennekamper said. “He’s not the stalker on the street.”

The church was initially cautious about Weir’s participation in the congregation, and he initially had to attend with another person. “We’ve tried to support him over these years,” the minister said.

Parents interviewed last week said they do not want Weir to leave the community, or wish him any harm. They are seeking legal advice on how to navigate the issue, and are proposing a group meeting with church staff, to potentially include police and school officials.

Preschool programs have been running in the two decades since Weir returned to town, Bennekamper noted. A concern early this year over continued nursery school licensing by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services led to an official agreement that Weir could not be on church property during school hours, after which Bennekamper informed parents of his employment, she said.

“We decided that the best thing to do was to tell the families, and not to have them discover it on their own and wonder why we hadn’t told them,” Bennekamper said.

State law does not preclude a sex offender from working in any particular place, as long as that person doesn’t have bail conditions, Police Chief Charles Rumsey said Oct. 3.

“We’re able to do notifications, based on our knowledge of the conviction and potential threat posed to the community, and that’s basically it,” he said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Parents of children attending preschools at the Congregational Church in Cumberland are concerned over the decision to hire a convicted sex offender as a backup custodian. (Dudley Warner / For The Forecaster)

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.