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  Priest Told Diocese of More Cases, Lawyer Says
The Attorney for the Rev. Dennis Wagner Says Church Officials Knew of Other Victims about 10 Years before the Church Says It Learned of the Other Cases

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
May 14, 2002

The Diocese of Grand Rapids knew one of its priests had sexually abused several boys at least 10 years earlier than it has acknowledged, the priest's lawyer said Monday.

Allegations about the decade-long gap raise new questions about how the diocese and police handled a 1983 criminal case involving the Rev. Dennis Wagner, who was placed on probation then for allegedly fondling one teen-age boy.

Wagner was stripped of his collar last week, after the diocese disclosed it learned of five additional allegations against him since the 1990s.

A spokeswoman for the diocese said there are no records indicating the diocese knew of other victims earlier than that.

But James Brady, who has represented Wagner since the first case, said his client told the diocese in 1983 about a "handful" of other boys he molested.

"I don't think there was any secret that there were others," Brady said.

However, Ginny Seyferth, a public relations spokeswoman for the diocese, said records detailing additional victims do not start until a decade later -- when four men came forward to say they also were molested in the 1980s.

"The only thing we have records on are victims coming forward in 1993," Seyferth said. "There were offers of counseling (for victims) starting in that time. We don't have anything that ties this back to the 1980s."

The detective who worked on the old case said nobody told him about other victims. If they had, Wagner likely would have been treated by the courts as a serial pedophile, retired state police Detective Sgt. James Albright said.

"I think he would go to jail, the county jail, or get prison time," Albright said.

Last week, Bishop Robert Rose announced he was removing Wagner from all priestly duties. The move came two days after the bishop said yet another allegation had surfaced against Wagner -- the sixth -- also dating to the 1980s.

Wagner's lawyer contradicted diocesan statements that it did not know of additional victims until the 1990s.

Brady said Wagner told diocesan officials during the 1983 case that there were other victims. He said there are no known cases of abuse after that time.

"Father Wagner's position, and my position, is he made total and complete disclosures," Brady said. "Certainly, the diocese and the persons in position of authority knew it. Whether memories are short or persons forgot, we don't know.

"He made disclosure of each situation that he had recall of."

Brady said he doesn't know the names of the victims or exactly how many were identified.

Those involved with the case said the prosecutor did not know about other victims. Brady said he "doesn't have any recollection" of Wagner divulging the information to prosecutors.

Former Muskegon County Assistant Prosecutor Gerald Gibbs, who signed the plea-bargain agreement, said he doesn't recall learning about other victims.

Albright, the state police investigator, said he doesn't recall asking the priest about other potential victims. A police report obtained by The Press shows Wagner asked for an attorney when Albright started questioning him about abuse.

While prosecutors could have filed charges involving other victims in 1983, the cases would be too old now to prosecute, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth said. Under the statute of limitations, a sexual assault typically can be prosecuted within six years of the incident. If the victim is a younger child, the abuse can be prosecuted until the child is 21.

Wagner was ordained in 1976 and served in two parishes -- St. Stephen's in East Grand Rapids and St. Michael's in Coopersville -- before he was charged in 1983, church officials said.

The charge involved a 13-year-old Coopersville boy who told his mother that Wagner, then 34, fondled him four times during an overnight trip to the priest's cabin in Muskegon County. The Muskegon County Prosecutor's Office charged the priest with gross indecency between males, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Wagner pleaded no contest to a plea-bargained misdemeanor assault, and was placed on probation for two years.

The alleged 10-year-gap is not the only inconsistency that has arisen in the Wagner case.

In a statement last week, Rose said diocesan officials were not given the name of the Coopersville victim. Seyferth said church officials didn't learn his name until three or four months ago.

But the victim's mother told The Press a diocese official appeared at her door several weeks after the charges were filed. The official offered counseling, if her son needed it, and then asked what her intentions were, she said.

"They just wanted to know if I wanted vengeance, an eye for an eye," she said. "I said, 'No, no, no. I just don't want this to happen again.'"

Diocesan officials said they removed Wagner from parish duties at the time of his conviction, allowing him to celebrate Mass only if invited by a priest. He also was sent to psychiatric evaluation and counseling, church officials said.

Retired Bishop Joseph Breitenbeck, who headed the Diocese of Grand Rapids at the time of Wagner's conviction, declined to comment Monday.

"The treatment we've been given by the paper prompts me never to get into anything on that," Breitenbeck said. "I think you've been very unfair."

Breitenbeck retired in 1989, when Rose succeeded him as head of the 154,000-member diocese.

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph McKinney, who was appointed Wagner's probation officer following the 1983 conviction, said he did not know then of any other allegations against Wagner. In fact, McKinney said he knew no details about the conviction itself.

"I had no idea of the seriousness of this kind of thing," said McKinney, who retired last fall after serving as the diocese's auxiliary bishop since 1968. "No one had informed me at all about what the problem was."

McKinney said he was asked by the court to meet regularly with Wagner and report his findings to the judge. He said he never was told to monitor Wagner's proximity to children or investigate any allegations, but was to make sure Wagner was receiving therapy and "staying out of trouble."

"I never got a clear picture of what the judge expected. I just felt, 'Well, this is a guy who's straightening his life out.' "

Although McKinney said he had "the definite impression (Wagner) was accused of molesting a boy," he said he never met with the victim's family and only learned of the case's details in a recent newspaper report. He said it was a "shock" to learn Wagner had abused five other boys during the 1980s.

Wagner lived with McKinney when he served as the bishop's associate pastor at St. Stephen's parish in East Grand Rapids. McKinney said it was Wagner's first appointment after being ordained. He said Wagner was a good priest and that he had no suspicions about him.

Steven Kelly, a Grand Rapids area resident victimized by Wagner, said he wants to know if Wagner told the diocese about him in 1983. If so, he wonders why church officials didn't meet with him until five years ago -- after he and his mother contacted them.

He said Wagner molested him over a period of more than six months in the early 1980s at St. Joseph's Seminary. Kelly, who was 12 at the time, said his parents had sent him to Wagner, hoping the priest could straighten out his bad behavior.

He said he told his parents a short time later, but didn't go to the diocese until 1997, when he heard Wagner was celebrating Mass.

A diocese official met him and said his allegation had been substantiated, he said.

"I asked him, 'Why didn't you call me?' He said, 'It's not our policy to pursue people.'"

"I was a minor. Don't you think it would have been prudent to give my parents a call and say, 'This happened to your son; we want you to be aware of it.' They are in the soul-saving business, aren't they?"

 
 

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