Fr. Benedict Groeschel - author, retreat master and preacher - dies

Fr. Benedict Groeschel in 2008 (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Totowa, N.J. — Fr. Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan priest whose long beard, gray robes, prolific writings and often controversial views made him a distinctive and popular presence in Catholic media, died Friday at St. Joseph's Home for the Elderly in Totowa, N.J.

Groeschel was 81 and had been in declining health.

Grosechel had been out of the spotlight since 2012, when he made controversial comments that blamed some victims of sexual abuse by priests for inviting the molestation.

"We are deeply saddened by the loss of Fr. Benedict but also relieved that God has set him free from the physical and mental suffering he has experienced over the past decade," the New York-based community he founded, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, said in a statement.

Robert Peter Groeschel was born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1933 and took the name Benedict when he entered the Capuchin Franciscan order in 1951.

In 1987, Groeschel and seven other Capuchin priests broke away to form the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, based in New York City, to follow a more traditional religious life that highlighted communal living and traditional garb while serving the poor and needy.

They would also use any means they could to promote their message; a rock band organized by some of the sandal-clad, bearded brothers inspired a 2007 New York Times story called "Monks Who Play Punk."

Groeschel's community touched a chord, and at his death, there were 115 brothers and priests and 31 sisters in nine friaries in the U.S., four in Europe and two convents in Central America.

Groeschel, who was a trained psychologist, made the media his special mission field. He became a popular author, speaker, and spiritual director and he was a fixture on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network, better known as EWTN.

In 2004, at the age of 70, Groeschel was struck by a car while on a trip to Florida and suffered numerous broken bones and intracranial bleeding that contributed to a heart attack. His survival was in serious doubt, but he recovered and went on to write a book called, There Are No Accidents: In All Things Trust in God.

Groeschel was an outspoken opponent of abortion and was quick to defend the church against what he saw as unfair criticism, which endeared him to conservative Catholics in particular. But his criticisms of media coverage of the clergy sex abuse scandals also landed him in hot water.

In August 2012, Groeschel sparked a firestorm when he gave an interview saying priests who sexually abuse children "on their first offense" should not go to jail and that the child is often "the seducer." He also expressed sympathy for Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who was convicted that year of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

A spokesman for New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a longtime friend of Groeschel's, denounced the remarks. The newspaper that ran the interview, the National Catholic Register, which is an EWTN affiliate, removed the piece and replaced it with an apology.

Groeschel himself also apologized, as did the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Groeschel also gave up his EWTN appearances. "At some point you have to take the car keys away from grandpa," Fr. Glenn Sudano, a spokesman for the friars, said at the time.

Groescehl will be buried following a funeral Mass on Friday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J.

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