2 D.M. Priests Accused of Sex Abuse Removed by Pope

By Tony Leys
Des Moines Register [Iowa]
November 17, 2006

Two Iowa priests accused of sexually abusing minors have been removed from the priesthood by Pope Benedict XVI, the Des Moines Diocese announced Thursday.

Bishop Joseph Charron had requested the action against Richard Wagner and John Ryan, and the men agreed to it, a diocese spokeswoman said. If they had fought the request, the pope could have ordered them defrocked. Instead, he ordered them "laicized," which carries similar effects but a less punitive connotation.

Catholic leaders announced in 2003 that the men and a third priest were being relieved of all priestly duties because of credible accusations that they had molested minors.


Wagner, 71, was a high-profile priest, serving as principal of Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines from 1971 to 1976. Allegations against him surfaced in 1993. They concerned abuse of a female high school student in the late 1980s, when Wagner was pastor at St. Mary Parish in Red Oak. After the allegations were made, the church quietly removed Wagner from Red Oak, sent him to treatment, then allowed him to continue a restricted ministry in Des Moines.

Ryan, 83, was ordained in 1950 and retired in 1988. He was accused of molesting boys while he served at St. Theresa Parish in Des Moines in the 1980s. The diocese said he had been forbidden to perform any public ministry since 1993. He taught at Dowling from 1953 to 1965.

Amid a national sex-abuse scandal, Charron recommended in 2003 that the pope defrock the two men and a third priest, Albert Wilwerding, who later died. The bishop announced the pope's decision in a press release Thursday.


"As a result of these actions, John Ryan and Richard Wagner are no longer priests of the Diocese of Des Moines and may not exercise priestly ministry or identify themselves as priests," Charron wrote.

Ryan declined to comment. Wagner could not be reached.

A national anti-abuse activist had a mixed reaction to the action. "This step may provide some comfort to the victims, but it doesn't absolve church officials of their duties to warn people about these predators," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Clohessy said kicking priests out of the priesthood shames the offenders, but doesn't necessarily protect children. "Ultimately, what keeps kids safe is when molesters are jailed, not defrocked."

Clohessy noted that, as in many other cases, church leaders kept the allegations against the two priests quiet for years. He said such secrecy in cases around the country allowed abuse of more children. He urged any victims to come forward and tell law officers and church officials about abuse, no matter how long ago it happened.

Diocese spokeswoman Anne Marie Cox said she doesn't believe either Ryan or Wagner was ever charged with a crime for the abuse. She said they no longer live in Catholic facilities, though both remain in the Des Moines area. They continue to draw pensions, as required by law, she said.

Cox said the diocese spent a total of $86,000 settling two complaints against Ryan, but didn't spend any on cases involving Wagner. She said there was no litigation involving either man.

A former choir student of Ryan's said he never saw any evidence of a problem. Gary Woltz of Waukee attended Dowling in the early 1960s and later was reacquainted with the priest when Ryan was chaplain for the Air National Guard. "I held him in nothing but the highest esteem," Woltz said.

Woltz added, however, that his heart and prayers go out to sex-abuse victims, and he believes Catholic leaders nationally erred by keeping such incidents quiet and moving abusive priests from parish to parish.

Woltz said he is struggling with his Catholicism, partly because of the scandal, but he believes the church can get past it if it is open about the problems and the solutions.

Woltz said he believes abusers have a sickness that can be treated. He said if he saw Ryan again, he would go up and talk to him. "I'd just tell him I'm praying for him."

Jerry Deegan, the current president of Dowling High School, said he believes abuse is less likely now. "The most important thing to us is the safety and well-being of the kids," Deegan said. The church trains all staff to ensure quick action to head off problems. He said the pope's move against Wagner and Ryan was appropriate. "It appears to me that the process worked," he said.



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