Priest's Exit Seen As 2nd Penalty
By Shirley Ragsdale
Friends and fellow priests say the Rev. Richard Wagner already paid the price for his sexual misconduct.
Being defrocked a decade later for the same offense smacks of double jeopardy, they say.
"Even in secular society, a person can do his time and put things behind him," said the Rev. Aquinas M. Nichols, administrator of the Basilica of St. John and prior of St. Gabriel's Priory, the Des Moines monastery where Wagner lived in recent years.
Wagner, 68, once the highly regarded president of Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, was hustled away from his church in western Iowa after allegations surfaced in 1993 that he had abused a high school girl in the late '80s.
"I know he left Red Oak awfully fast," said Anne Smiley, a parishioner in 1993 who has stayed in touch with Wagner. "At the time he said he was going for guidance and to get back on his spiritual path, that he needed to take some time away. But I didn't know why he was leaving."
It wasn't publicized at the time, but Des Moines Diocese officials said earlier this month that Wagner went in 1993 to a treatment facility operated by the Servants of the Paraclete. The paraclete ministers to priests and brothers who have personal difficulties.
Church officials, who are moving to defrock Wagner and two other priests over past abuse, say the allegations came from someone required by law to report suspected abuse, such as a teacher or medical professional. Wagner's treatment came under a diocese policy adopted in 1988, which included an option for priests to return to the ministry after treatment and notification of civil authorities.
Anne Marie Cox, a Des Moines Diocese spokeswoman, said the church assumes that authorities were told about the case, although no charges were filed.
"We are informed by professionals that it is not unusual for no charges to be brought when dealing with a minor," Cox said.
Following treatment, Wagner joined the Benedictine Brothers at St. Gabriel's Priory in a supervised living arrangement. He served unofficially as parochial vicar at the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines.
Wagner "did everything required under the diocese's 1988 policy," basilica administrator Nichols said. "He complied faithfully with church policy and treatment program, but under the one-strike provisions of the new charter, the incident came back down the road to catch him."
That happened because U.S. bishops last year, under intense criticism after months of disclosure nationwide about abuse by priests and cover-ups by the church, adopted new policies on sexual misconduct by priests. Wagner's case was sent to a committee reviewing past allegations.
The committee, which is made up of volunteers, reviewed diocesan files and gathered additional information, talking to victims and their families and the priests involved, according to Bob Holz, chairman of the committee.
"Father Wagner never thought it would come to this," friend Smiley said. "He told me he believed the committee's mind was made up when he came before them."
Since the announcement, Wagner has contacted friends to let them know he was OK, Smiley said.
"He sounded good," she said. "He said he did his grieving when the U.S. bishops came out with the new policy on sexual misconduct. He is past that now."
Wagner could not be reached by The Des Moines Register for comment.
Wagner was ordained in the Des Moines Diocese in 1961. His first assignment was at Holy Family Catholic Church in Council Bluffs. As associate pastor at Holy Family, Wagner's "zeal and kindness in giving advice to those in need was beyond the call of duty. He was always a booster for civic actions in the community," the church history reads.
He was briefly assigned to St. Ambrose Cathedral in Des Moines before becoming a teacher at Dowling Catholic High School in 1965, according to the Rev. Jim Kiernan.
Wagner is remembered at Dowling as a good teacher, a good representative in the community and as the president who managed the difficult job of consolidating St. Joseph Academy, the all-girls Catholic school, and Dowling, a boys school. He was principal and president from 1971 to 1976.
"Bishop Maurice Dingman called him up and asked if he was interested" in leading the school, said Jerry Deegan, current Dowling president. "He was surprised when he got the call. He was hired as principal and got things started here. From my perspective, he did a good job."
Dowling and St. Joseph had strong traditions, Deegan said. Under Wagner's leadership, Dowling for a time scheduled activities from both schools' traditions. Eventually, the school kept the best events and worked on forming new traditions.
In August 1976, Wagner was reassigned to St. Michael's Parish in Harlan. At that time, the parish of 550 families was the largest rural parish in the Des Moines Diocese. During Wagner's tenure at St. Michael's, a parish family religious education program was instituted and in 1979, construction began on the $500,000 Rosman Parish Center.
Sara Miller of Clive, who grew up in Harlan, remembers Wagner as a caring and attentive pastor.
"Father Wagner was so wonderful to our family," Miller said. "He was so kind when my father died. My mother had eight kids at home. I was 11 and in the sixth grade when he left Harlan. We stayed in touch. In 1997, he presided at my wedding Mass at St. Augustin's Catholic Church, and afterward people came to me and said, 'Wow! What a great priest.'
"He was getting ready to retire. It is a shame for him to be forced to go out like this when he has done so much good and favorably touched hundreds of lives."
Wagner returned to Council Bluffs in 1982 to St. Patrick's Catholic Church. In 1987, he was assigned to St. Mary's Parish in Red Oak.
Smiley and Charla Schmid, both of Red Oak, remember when Wagner arrived. They remember his positive attitude and his cheerful demeanor.
"I was a teenager, and he took me and another good friend to ball games, and we did lots of things together," Smiley said. "There was nothing, ever, that was inappropriate."
Wagner baptized Schmid's second daughter, Katie. Schmid and others in the community are still shocked by the latest news.
"We had a meeting at the church this week, just for people to talk," Schmid said. "We agreed that what happened was wrong. I think he did, too. I wish the diocese had been more truthful with us as a parish. It was unfair to us. The diocese must have been more concerned with the diocese at the time."
Smiley said it was hard for her to believe the diocese is backdating its policy and penalizing Wagner so severely.
"It is just unfortunate," Schmid said. "As Catholics, a lot of us were brought up to put priests on a pedestal. We must remember they are human beings.
"Communication is a great tool. You have to give people credit if you are upfront and honest with them, that they will handle it appropriately. When things are kept secret, people lose trust."
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