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  Two More Priests Removed for Sex Abuse
The Grand Rapids Catholic Diocese Also Said It Spent More Than $1 Million in Settlements over the Past 40 Years

Grand Rapid Press
July 5, 2002

In its most sweeping moves since revelations of sexual abuse by its clergy, the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids announced today it is removing two priests from duty, the Revs. Donald Heydens and Michael Walsh, a 65-year-old ordained last month.

A third priest, the Rev. Dennis Wagner, will ask the pope for permission to leave the priesthood.

And after months of silence on the financial cost of sexual abuse cases, Bishop Robert Rose also revealed the diocese spent more than $1 million in settlements, therapy and other costs for victims over the past 40 years.

Walsh, a former Air Force sergeant, was to start work Wednesday at his first church, St. Michael's parish in the Mecosta County town of Remus. But Rose said he learned last week of recent allegations of sexual misconduct involving two children that took place 40 years ago.

Rose said he felt like he had been punched in the stomach when the allegations came to light.

"It certainly is disheartening to have a man ordained and a month later remove him from the priesthood," Rose said this morning. "It's a terrible thing to have to do. ... This came right out of the blue."

Heydens, who molested four girls in the 1970s at St. Francis Xavier parish in Grand Rapids, will be removed Aug. 10, Rose said.

Wagner, who sexually abused six boys in the 1980s, was removed in May from his duties as priest.

Because Wagner will ask Pope John Paul II for permission to step down, the church will not have to ask the pope to forcibly laicize Wagner -- a move never before taken by the local diocese.

Rose said the steps against Heydens and Walsh were taken in response to a policy approved by U.S. bishops last month that calls for the removal of any priest who has abused a minor.

They cannot perform public Masses, work in parishes, wear clerical garb or present themselves as priests in public. But they will continue to be priests and be cared for by the diocese.

Rose said he hopes to put the scandal behind the church. "We're going to do all we need to make sure it's done properly," he said.

Neither Heydens nor Walsh could be reached for comment.

Wagner, reached by telephone at the rectory of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Grandville, where he lives, refused to comment.

Today's announcements were applauded by some victims, who said they weren't surprised that sexual predators in the church have cost the diocese so much money.

"One million is a cheap price to pay for someone's soul," said Steven Kelly, 33, who was 12 when Wagner molested him repeatedly in 1980. "And that was how many people's souls?"

Rose said none of the $1,046,760 that went to victims came from parish collections, Catholic Service Appeal contributions or other diocesan collections. Instead, some came from insurance coverage and payments by the priests, he said.

In 1987, after the diocese could no longer get traditional insurance coverage, a special fund from investment income was set up with other dioceses in Michigan -- a self-insurance program, Rose said.

Rose said the money invested came from wills and other gifts given to the diocese.

The bishop said he didn't know how many victims have received payments, but the diocese has revealed that since the 1950s it has substantial abuse claims made by 19 men and women victims against eight priests.

Payments went to some of those victims as well as to people whose claims against other priests were unsubstantiated, Rose said.

The diocese has said its largest payment was more than $500,000 in 1994 to three women who were sexually abused as girls by the late Rev. John Thomas Sullivan.

New priest removed

For the diocese, perhaps the most disheartening news involved Walsh.

Rose said an attorney for two alleged victims called the Grand Rapids diocese's attorney late last week about incidents from 40 years ago. The bishop refused to provide details, including where the alleged victims were from. Walsh was a layperson at the time, Rose said.

"The victims asked there be confidentiality and that no one would know where they are from," Rose said. "I really don't know much about the circumstances."

Walsh is not suspected of any wrongdoing in the Grand Rapids diocese, Rose said.

Walsh was among three men ordained in the diocese in early June. The ceremony at Cathedral of Saint Andrew was a bright spot for the diocese during weeks of dark news about predatory priests.

In a story in The Press, Walsh was described as a jovial, ruddy-cheeked Irishman who grew up poor in Boston, worked hard all his life and was drawn to serve God. He was quoted as saying he was "horribly hurt" by the crisis in the church.

He retired from the Air Force after two decades and took care of his mother before pursuing the priesthood in the 1990s.

"You answer God's call when it comes," he said. "You may act on it now or you may act on it later."

For a time he lived at Christopher House, the Grand Rapids diocese's residence for aspiring priests, while taking classes at Aquinas College. He later entered a four-year program in Baltimore, returning here in the summers to work at Pine Rest Christian Hospital and the past two summers at Holy Family parish in Caledonia.

Holy Family's pastor, the Rev. David LeBlanc, said Walsh had become well loved among parishioners.

"This is all very difficult for everybody, for the victims as well as those who have been accused," LeBlanc said. "All these hurt. There's goodness in all these people."

Rose said Walsh is on a retreat. "He didn't want to be in the diocese when this was announced," he said.

For a woman victimized as a teen-ager by Heydens in the 1970s, the decision to remove him from duties comes too late.

"It's too bad they waited 30 years to do it," said the woman, who said she was a 15-year-old parishioner at St. Francis Xavier parish in Grand Rapids at the time of the assault.

"It's a little late and a small step, but every step has got to help."

The church paid her $5,000 for therapy and her legal bills in the early 1990s, shortly after she came forward. The woman is now a 46-year-old mother of two who lives in the Grand Rapids area. She asked that her name not be published.

Heydens, now 57, was found to have committed sexual misconduct with four girls from 1970 to 1974 while a pastor at St. Francis Xavier.

In 1989, he was the focus of a six-figure settlement by the diocese, a victim's attorney said. More allegations were revealed in the early 1990s and shocked parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle, where Heydens was serving at the time.

Heydens was allowed to remain at St. Thomas after the 1989 settlement because testing and therapy indicated he did not pose a threat, church officials said. However, he was removed from the post after that and other allegations became public.

Heydens received therapy

He received therapy from an out-of-state clinic, and did not return to diocese work until 1994 when he began processing marriage annulments for the diocese.

Until now, he was the only priest in the diocese still serving despite substantiated incidents of sexual abuse.

Since 1996, he performed Mass only as a guest preacher at area parishes, including St. Catherine's parish in Ravenna and Holy Trinity at Comstock Park. He preached in early April at St. Stephen's parish of East Grand Rapids.

Heydens also performed jail ministry and directed a program that trains lay people to become deacons. He most recently was living in a private home in Walker.

The victims of Wagner said they had mixed feelings about his decision to quit the priesthood altogether.

Wagner, 53, molested six boys between 1980 and 1985 while working at churches in the Grand Rapids area.

"That actually shows a little bit of remorse on his part, which I haven't seen to this point," Kelly said of Wagner's decision. "He's understanding what he did. I think it's a big step in the right direction."

Chris Burri, who was a 12-year-old parishioner at Holy Family in Caledonia when sexually assaulted in 1985, said he wants Wagner out of the priesthood.

"I don't think he's a good representative of God," he said. "I don't think he should have any role in delivering God's message."

But he hopes the church will continue to watch over Wagner.

"I'm afraid of where he's going to go, what he's going to do," he said. "I have a hard time, based on his past record and the amount of cases of abuse, that if he's not closely monitored by some organization, it's going to happen again to someone else."

Rose said the diocese will do what it can for Wagner. "He's still a brother. He worked for the diocese for 25 years. We will help him look for another kind of job. We will do all we can to see that continues in his (counseling) program."

The recent dismissals follow two other priests recently removed from duties: the Revs. Louis Baudone and Daniel Aerts.

Aerts resigned April 28 from parishes in Reed City and Paris after admitting to abusing a teen-age boy in 1979 while serving at St. Thomas and Holy Spirit parishes in Grand Rapids. Baudone was cited for two allegations of abuse in 1981 while serving in Muskegon Heights.

 
 

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