Vatican Looks into Area Abuse Case
Intervention Maybe First in Priest Scandal
By George Pawlaczyk
April 8, 2003
BELLEVILLE — The ongoing investigation of a Sparta priest accused of sexual abuse of a minor has been transferred to Rome.
The 6-month-old case against the Rev. William Rensing was transferred last month.
This may be the Vatican's first intervention into an ongoing local investigation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest in the United States.
"We received a letter from Rome telling us that they had received (local) letters questioning the way it was being handled," the Rev. James Margason, vicar general of the Diocese of Belleville, said Monday.
"We had no choice but to send this to Rome," Margason said, adding, "This is the first time that I know of that this has happened."
Margason said Monday he did not know the nature of the letters to Rome or who sent them.
Dave Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Monday that he too believes this is the first time in the nation that Rome has pulled an investigation away from a local diocese. He said it is probably bad news for victims of priests.
"The bureaucrats in the hierarchy in Rome are not as good at protecting the rights of victims as they are obsessed with the technicalities of internal church processes," Clohessy said.
"The transfer of these kinds of cases means they are bypassing input from the victims."
The allegations against Rensing, 72, who was removed in October from parish duties in Sparta, were transferred last month from the Diocesan Fitness Review Board in Belleville, Margason said. The board had been investigating the abuse allegations since September.
Rensing, who has denied any wrongdoing, could not be reached.
The accused priest's innocence or guilt will now be decided by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which is made up of high ranking priests.
The allegations against Rensing resulted from a telephone call to the diocese sex abuse hot line last year, when a man confided to a church lawyer in Belleville that Rensing had sexually abused him in Fairview Heights about 30 years ago.
The case was put on hold after the man admitted he was himself being investigated for child abuse and was warned by the church lawyer not to incriminate himself and to contact an attorney.
Through intervention by diocese officials, a lawyer agreed to represent the man who then called back on the hot line and presented his allegations against Rensing. He has not been identified. His allegations were referred to the review board, which in October recommended Rensing's temporary removal. Rensing may not perform priestly duties but is still getting paid (earning a salary).
Margason said that Rome's decision to take over Rensing's investigation may have resulted from recent concern by Pope John Paul II and top church officials for the rights of accused priests under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The strict charter was adopted in June by the U.S. Conference of American Bishops in Dallas. The organization is headed by Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville.
The charter states that even a single allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest, no matter how old, must be investigated within the diocese.
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