|Venice Priest at Heart of Sexual Abuse Inquiry
By Dale White
February 4, 2011
A Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing a Nokomis boy may have victimized other local children, according to evidence seized from his computer.
Sarasota County Sheriff's officials said Tuesday they drew that conclusion based on "Internet communications" found on William C. Wert's computer, which was taken from the church-owned house he shares with two other priests in Venice.
Sheriff's officials did not describe the specifics of the communications or other evidence related to other children.
"We suspect one or more victims may be local. Others may be in other locations in the state," said Sheriff's Capt. Jeff Bell.
Deputies arrested the 53-year-old Wert Tuesday on two counts of lewd or lascivious battery of a child. Additional charges related to the same boy were added Thursday.
Arrest documents indicate Wert is accused of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy from September to January at several locations. Those include Wert's home in the 200 block of Harbor Drive South, an empty house and a motel room.
The allegations were made by the boy and his father after the father found inappropriate messages on his son's cell phone.
Catholic Diocese of Venice officials said Wert was not assigned to any of the local churches they oversee and was not publicly ministering.
Wert is a friar and ordained priest with the Order of Carmelites, a centuries-old Catholic brotherhood that takes vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. As such, he is not supervised by the Venice diocese.
In 2007, Wert was convicted in Washington, D.C., of assaulting a teenage boy. He was then moved by the Carmelites to the church-owned home in Venice and was banned by the church from ministering to the public or performing any formal church duties.
Father John Welch, a prior who oversees Wert and 190 Carmelite priests in the continental United States and South America, said he took steps to keep Wert away from children.
He sent Wert to the church-owned retirement home in Venice because it had "no proximity" to a school, mission or any other Carmelite-run ministry.
But the retirement home is just four blocks from Epiphany Cathedral and its school. Wert's roommate said Wert did not attend the church.
Welch did not notify the Venice diocese about Wert's presence or about his conviction. Welch said that was not necessary because Wert was not authorized to perform ministry for the diocese.
"He remains a member of our family," Welch said. "He's a brother. ... Community is an important part of our tradition."
Wert spent much of his career in the clergy working with boys and young men.
In 1987 and from 1993 to 1999, Wert worked at Crespi Carmelite High School, a college prep school for boys in Encino, Calif.
In June 1999, Wert joined the order's "vocational ministry," working primarily out of the Carmelite Province's headquarters in Darien, Ill., and later in Washington.
"He was very dedicated to his work, an energetic guy," Welch said.
In a 2004 article in the Carmelite publication "The Sword," Wert described his role as an adviser to young men who were considering joining the clergy.
Wert wrote that he did not recruit young men to the order but worked with those who felt called by God. Wert also wrote: "What is our horizon? Unfortunately, I think our horizon has been marked all too much by individualism and self-gratification. We have lost a sense of communal mission. I personally believe that it is not too late to reverse the trend."
Until 2007, there were no public complaints about Wert.
That year, a 14-year-old boy at a transit station in Washington complained to police that Wert had followed him, asked for his name and touched his thigh after suggesting they "hide" somewhere. Originally charged with a misdemeanor sex offense, Wert was convicted of simple assault after a two-day trial; he was sentenced to 15 days in jail and five years' probation. An appeals court upheld his conviction.
Other than the D.C. arrest and the Sarasota charges, Welch said he knows of no other criminal complaints against Wert.
The Sheriff's Office has not disclosed how Wert met the Nokomis boy but said it was not through any religious organization.
A retired friar who lived with Wert in Venice described him as a "mystery man" who never explained why he was on a leave of absence from a Washington parish.
Clyde Ozminkowski, 81, said Wert bought a new gray Mustang sports car about three weeks ago.
"I wasn't aware of that," Welch said. He was unsure how Wert could afford a car.
Because friars take a vow of poverty, the Province supplies cars for members at a particular residence to share, he said.
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