NEW ORLEANS (LA)
The Guardian [London, England]
May 11, 2023
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
Virgil Wheeler, who died in April, verbally agreed deal but made U-turn after learning he would have to register as sex offender in New Orleans
A US Roman Catholic cleric who admitted in criminal court to sexually abusing a child before his ordination backed out of a seven-figure settlement agreement with his victim after learning he would have to register as a sex offender, the Guardian has confirmed.
The deacon in question – attorney Virgil Maxey “VM” Wheeler III – died earlier this year after writing a will expressing his desire to donate much of his money to prominent institutions, mostly in the Louisiana community in which he worked. His victim is now calling on the beneficiaries to reject those gifts from his abuser.
“Each of these gifts requires these institutions to ascribe to these funds the name of a dead pedophile,” the victim and his attorney, Richard Trahant, said in a statement this week. “None of these institutions should accept this money, which instead should go to” the victim, who described how Wheeler’s reneging on their settlement agreement stemming from molestation to which he has admitted constituted one final act of abuse.
After being asked by the Guardian if they intended to receive the donations, which were contingent on identifying Wheeler by name, two institutions said they did not plan on accepting the gifts. Another said it was not aware, and one did not immediately comment.
The dispute provides the latest contours to a clerical molestation scandal which for decades has engulfed New Orleans’s Catholic archdiocese, the oldest in the US to have declared bankruptcy in the face of a mound of abuse litigation.
Wheeler, 64, in December admitted molesting the victim – the child of family friends – between 2000 and 2002, when the victim was between the ages of 10 and 12. Wheeler correspondingly pleaded guilty to four charges of indecent behavior with a juvenile filed against him in state court in Jefferson parish, which neighbors New Orleans.
In exchange for not taking his case to trial, Wheeler agreed to serve five years of probation, avoid contact with the victim and register as a sex offender for 15 years.
The guilty plea, however, did not resolve a separate civil lawsuit demanding damages for his acknowledged victim. The civil case has grown contentious, generating allegations that prominent New Orleans-area Catholics unsuccessfully mounted a pressure campaign to get the victim – who comes from a locally well-known family but whose name has not been publicly released – to drop his claim against Wheeler.
Prior to his guilty plea, Wheeler had verbally agreed to provide the victim a settlement in excess of $1m to resolve the litigation, the statement from Trahant and his victim said. But upon learning that he would have to register as a sex offender, Wheeler revoked the agreement, “further re-victimizing” the victim.
Wheeler died from pancreatic cancer in early April. Later that month, attorneys representing his estate filed a will that set aside $100,000 to Southern Methodist University business school in Texas for a scholarship in his name, civil court records show.
The will earmarked another $600,000 for trusts set up to benefit his dogs and a pair of siblings. It then specified how he wanted to disburse 40% of the unspecified remainder of his estate to a scholarship in his name aiding students from Louisiana who enroll at New Orleans’s Tulane University law school.
The will said 25% and 10% of the estate’s remainder should go to the charitable fundraising arms of the Jefferson parish-based Ochsner hospital network and the New Orleans archdiocese respectively.
Spokespersons for Tulane and Ochsner said neither intended to accept Wheeler’s donations after being informed of the gifts and asked about them by the Guardian. SMU said it was not aware of the will.
The Catholic Community Foundation did not immediately comment.
Trahant and his client in their statement made it a point to note that the retired Catholic priest Andrew Taormina and the former business manager of the church where Wheeler served as a deacon, Ray Massett, had respectively been given roles as executor of the estate and a trustee of one of the trust funds mentioned in the will.
The victim’s lawsuit had previously alleged that his mother, knowing that Wheeler dreamed of becoming a deacon, had reported to Taormina and other local church officials years earlier that Wheeler had tried to coax the victim and the victim’s brother into his bed on a ski trip when the victim was 12.
Church officials have maintained that the victim did not fully disclose details of his abuse by Wheeler until 2020, two years after Wheeler had been ordained as a deacon.
The victim’s report against Wheeler prompted New Orleans’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, to suspend Wheeler from serving as a deacon. Prosecutors later charged Wheeler.
Trahant and his client’s statement argued that Taormina and Massett’s selection for decision-making roles associated with Wheeler’s estate “demonstrates how utterly unbothered the hierarchy of the archdiocese of New Orleans is by child sexual abuse”.
A spokesperson for Aymond said he had no comment on the role given to Taormina by Wheeler’s will. The spokesperson also said Massett no longer held any official capacity at the church.
Neither Massett nor the attorney who represented Wheeler when he pleaded guilty in criminal court immediately responded to requests for comment.
The New Orleans archdiocese has so far declined to add Wheeler to a list of more than 80 priests and deacons who have worked – or were ordained – locally and have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults.
Aymond’s initial release of that list in 2018 in what he said was an act of transparency and contrition led to a wave of abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese, which later filed for bankruptcy protection in a case that remains unresolved.
A judge hearing appeals in the bankruptcy recused himself from the matter after the Guardian and the Associated Press inquired about his close political relationship with an attorney whose firm represented archdiocesan affiliates in insurance disputes, among other circumstances.
Court records show that the attorney is part of the legal team representing Wheeler’s estate.
- In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International