Pierce County Priest Quits Ministry
Pastor Acts after Accuser's Phone Call Resurrects Fondling Claim from Long Ago
By Ray Rivera and Janet I. Tu
June 1, 2002
A Pierce County priest who had received psychiatric counseling after being accused of fondling a boy in 1979 has resigned from active ministry after the same accusation resurfaced last week, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle said yesterday.
The Rev. Dennis V. Champagne, 57, was pastor of St. John Bosco Church in Lakewood and Immaculate Conception Church in Steilacoom. He was pastor of St. Michael's parish in Snohomish when the alleged abuse occurred.
In a letter to Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett, Champagne said, "in light of the accusations that have been brought against me to the archdiocese in recent days I think it is in the best interest of all concerned if at this time I offer you my resignation from active ministry."
He is the second archdiocese priest in a week to resign his ministry after being accused of long-ago abuse.
Champagne did not return phone calls. He will remain a priest and his living expenses will be paid by the archdiocese, but he can no longer wear the collar, deliver Mass or other sacraments or represent himself as a priest. The archdiocese did not say yesterday whether other restrictions were placed on him.
Archdiocese spokesman Bill Gallant said he knew of no other accusations against the priest. The archdiocese first learned of the accusation in 1986 from a priest who wrote a letter to then-Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen.
In that letter, obtained by The Times, the Rev. Pat Conroy wrote that the alleged victim had approached him unsure how to proceed.
"It seems this young man, who is about 20 years old now, was one of many young boys, years ago, who spent a lot of time with Fr. Dennis Champagne in the rectory and on outings," Conroy wrote.
"It came to pass on one such occasion that Fr. Champagne made a homosexual pass at the young boy in question, momentarily molesting him. The youth fled immediately. Fr. Champagne never again made such a pass, and the young man never told anyone, with the exception of a friend, who asked me to talk to the victim, about this incident."
The boy would have been about 12 or 13 at the time of the alleged abuse.
Conroy, a Jesuit now at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said in a recent interview that to the best of his recollection, the archdiocese never got back to him and he didn't know what became of the complaint.
The archdiocese said yesterday that after receiving the 1986 complaint, the alleged victim did not want his name revealed nor did he want any further participation in processing the complaint.
In keeping with archdiocese policy at the time, the complaint was turned over to the priest personnel director for review, Gallant said in a statement.
Champagne entered psychiatric counseling and was allowed to remain in ministry after the priest personnel director's inquiry and recommendations, Gallant said.
The accusation surfaced again last week when the alleged victim, who lives in Northern California, called the archdiocese and confirmed he was the subject of the 1986 complaint and expanded on the accusation. The alleged victim's name was not released.
The archdiocese, keeping with its present, more stringent policies for dealing with sexual abuse the policies were revised in 1989 turned the allegations over to law enforcement, Gallant said.
Wednesday, Brunett informed Champagne that, in accordance with present policy, he was to go on administrative leave while the accusations were investigated. After the meeting, Champagne tendered his resignation from active ministry, which Brunett accepted Thursday.
Asked why the alleged victim contacted the archdiocese again, Gallant said it was "because of all of the things going on" involving the national sexual-abuse scandal sweeping the U.S. Catholic church.
Champagne was apparently well-liked by the parishioners at St. John Bosco.
"He is very good in the parish," said one longtime member who asked not to be identified. "He is very warm. He's open. You can really talk to him."
Last week, the archdiocese removed the Rev. John Cornelius after a flurry of accusations surfaced accusing him of molesting more than a dozen boys between 1968 and 1985. Cornelius resigned two days after he was told he would be removed.
That case also has been turned over to police, but prosecution is unlikely in either case because of expired statutes of limitations.
Voluntary resignation of a priest from active ministry or the removal of a priest from active ministry by a bishop can happen quickly. But the more serious measure of defrocking is a long and cumbersome process that requires Vatican approval. Without it, church law requires an archdiocese to provide for a priest's financial needs, Gallant said.
Ray Rivera can be reached at 206-464-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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