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  Priest Admits Fondling Teen Boy

By Diane Carroll
Kansas City Star
September 6, 2002

LAWRENCE - Standing before a judge, his hands clasped behind his back, the Rev. Dennis Schmitz pleaded guilty Thursday to inappropriately touching a 15-year-old Johnson County boy who shared his bed four years ago.

The 41-year-old Schmitz, a priest for 13 years, will receive probation if Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone goes along with a plea agreement. The judge - who could choose prison instead - set sentencing for Oct. 18.

For 20 minutes, Schmitz stood composed in front of Malone while the judge asked over and over whether he understood the implications of a plea. Did he understand he would be registered as a sex offender? Did he understand the court would ask for his DNA? Did he understand he was giving up his right to appeal?

"Yes sir," Schmitz answered quietly each time.

Schmitz is the only Kansas City area priest to face criminal charges since the sexual abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church earlier this year. His hearing Thursday took place in a small basement courtroom. A dozen people attended, half of them reporters. With Schmitz were his attorney, Stephen Mirakian, and the Rev. Gary Applegate, who advises Mirakian on church law.

As the hearing opened, Malone asked whether he should address Schmitz as "Father" or "Reverend" or "Mr." When Mirakian explained that his client was in the process of being removed from the priesthood, Malone replied: "Meaning no disrespect, then, I'll address you as Mr. Schmitz."

Asked to describe the crime, Schmitz said that a 15-year-old boy spent the night with him at his Douglas County residence in fall 1998.

At some point, late at night or early in the morning, he said, they shared the same bed. He said he reached over and touched the boy inappropriately, which led to sexual arousal and gratification.

Mirakian asked Schmitz whether he intentionally touched the boy's genitals. Schmitz said yes.

He was charged in June in Douglas County with one count of taking indecent liberties with a minor, a felony. A person with a criminal record and a conviction on that charge could face up to 136 months in prison.

Assistant District Attorney Ruth Ritthaler said she thought a pre-sentence investigation would show that Schmitz has no criminal record. The sentencing range for a person with no record is as much as 31 to 34 months in prison.

In exchange for Schmitz's guilty plea, Ritthaler said, she agreed not to argue against probation, which is what Mirakian wants.

The felony also carries a potential fine of up to $300,000. The plea agreement does not address the fine.

Schmitz was charged in Nemaha County, Kan., in June with an offense similar to the one in Douglas County. It involves the same young man, who is now 19. It alleges that Schmitz engaged in lewd fondling of the teen-ager between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1, 1999, at S&S Ranch in Nemaha County. Schmitz is a co-owner of the ranch.

After Thursday's hearing, Mirakian said he still was negotiating with the Nemaha County prosecutor to resolve that case.

Also pending is a civil lawsuit the teen-ager has brought against Schmitz in Douglas County. Included as a defendant is the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Mirakian said he did not expect Schmitz to make a public statement until his sentencing at the earliest. He said Schmitz wanted to plead guilty "to clear his conscience" and to avoid any further harm to the young man.

Mirakian said he did not think jail time for his client would serve any purpose.

"He knows what he did was very, very wrong," Mirakian said. "But there is a great amount of good in Father Dennis and a great amount of good he has done as a priest, and that should not be lost either."

Schmitz was ordained in 1989. He served in several Johnson County parishes, including St. Ann's in Prairie Village, Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park and St. Joseph's in Shawnee.

He was popular among young people, serving as vocations director. He founded the Runnin' Revs, a group of basketball-playing priests in Kansas.

The archdiocese removed Schmitz from his duties as a priest in May.

It plans to wait until legal proceedings are resolved before beginning laicization, the process of removing him permanently from the priesthood, said the Rev. Charles McGlinn, the archdiocese's vicar general of personnel.

The Vatican's approval is required for Schmitz to be unfrocked, he said, and he is not sure how long that will take.

For practical purposes, Schmitz already has been removed, McGlinn said. He can no longer celebrate Mass or wear clerical garments.

"Theologically, he will always be a priest," McGlinn said. "It's kind of like someone being baptized; you are always baptized. But he is no longer bound by the obligations of being a priest, nor does he have any of the rights."

 
 

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