Mother Remembers Nightmare of Priest Abusing Son in 1983
The Rev. Dennis Wagner Was Charged with Gross Indecency but Pleaded No Contest to a Reduced Charge in the Incident
Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
May 9, 2002
The Coopersville woman was going through a divorce and recalls asking the new priest at her church, the Rev. Dennis Wagner, to help her 13-year-old son.
"I asked Father Denny, 'There is no father figure in his life. Can you kind of take (my son) under your wing?'"
It seemed a blessing when Wagner, then a 34-year-old priest at St. Michael's parish in Coopersville, asked her son to go inner-tubing on the Muskegon River on July 21, 1983. They would spend the night at his cabin and return the next day.
Those two days became her son's nightmare, leading to felony charges of gross indecency against the priest, embarrassment for the Catholic Church and the end of a boy's innocence.
Wagner was allowed to plead no contest to a reduced charge and was lauded by the judge before being sentenced to probation.
The case became the public's first glimpse of trouble surrounding Wagner. In the years that followed, the diocese would learn of other cases, but dealt with them quietly -- until this week.
Bishop Robert Rose on Wednesday announced he is stripping Wagner of his collar and removing him from all priestly duties. The action came two days after the bishop disclosed a new allegation had surfaced against Wagner -- and that four other men had also come forward over the years, accusing the priest of abusing them as boys.
It's not clear whether the alleged incidents happened before or after the Muskegon County case. Local church officials would only say they did not learn of them until years later.
The victim in that 1983 case is now 32 and living in Grand Rapids. When contacted by The Press Wednesday, he at first said he never heard of Wagner, then said he didn't want to talk about it.
State Police reports obtained by The Press detail the 1983 allegations against Wagner.
Wagner and the teen first drove in a pickup to Wagner's cabin in Muskegon County's Egelston Township, on the north bank of the Muskegon River, with a load of furniture. They returned the truck, then drove back in Wagner's small car.
Before arriving at the cabin, Wagner reached over with his right hand, the boy told police. "He had his hands on my legs, and then, then he stuck it down my pants," the boy told a state police detective in a tape-recorded interview.
Then what happened? the detective asked.
"He just started playing with my stuff," the boy said.
"Can you tell me what he played with?" the detective asked.
The fondling, he told police, lasted a half-hour.
"He stated that he did not know what to do, and did not say anything to Father Dennis Wagner while he did this," the detective wrote.
Later that evening, the boy was sitting in his bathing suit on the couch in the cabin when Wagner sat next to him and fondled him again, the boy told police. "He stated again he did not know what to do, so he got up and went to bed," the detective wrote.
Nothing happened that night while they slept in separate beds in the same bedroom, but the next morning the boy awoke to find the priest masturbating on the other bed.
Later that day, as they floated on separate inner-tubes on the Muskegon River, Wagner paddled over and fondled the boy on the outside of his bathing suit, the boy told police.
"He stated at that time he flipped his inner tube over and swam away from Father Dennis Wagner," the detective quoted the boy as saying.
On the drive back from the cabin, Wagner again reached over and touched the boy's leg. "And at that time he (the boy) advised him not to do it, and at that point he stopped," the detective wrote.
About two weeks after the outing, the boy "uttered he never wanted to go tubing with Father Dennis again," according to the police report. He told his mother about the incident. She called a protective services worker, who called state police.
"If he did this to my son, I just thought, 'How many other boys has this happened to?'" said the mother.
It wasn't long before she heard comments around church criticizing her for going to police. "I was the bad guy," she said. "It was like, 'How could you do that to a priest?' "
Her son never returned to church, and she soon quit attending, she said.
In December 1983, Wagner pleaded no contest to assault and battery charges and appeared before Muskegon County Circuit Judge James Graves Jr. for sentencing.
The boy's mother asked the judge not to send the priest to jail. "I wanted him to get help," she said.
The judge praised the priest, before sentencing him.
" ... While I don't believe there should be special exceptions to our criminal law for the clergy, I do think we have to take into consideration a person's background, and I generally admire those who are willing to assume certain disciplines in a life of service.
"So I think, as we balance what has been the apparent good motivations of your life before ... that a jail sentence probably can be waived, although for this type of offense I usually do give jail or prison."
The boy's mother said the topic of the sexual assault never came up again in her home.
She said she's glad the church has removed Wagner from duty.
"Why didn't they do that 20 years ago?" she asked.
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