Allegations against Priest Put Bishop on the Spot Sexual Misconduct Probe of Wetzler a Test of New Zero-Tolerance Policy

By Kevin Taylor and Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)
November 28, 2002

A hotly debated national policy on how the Roman Catholic Church handles allegations of sexual abuse against clergy will be put into practice in Spokane on Dec. 16.

On that day, seven members of a review board are scheduled to hear the results of investigations into an accusation against a retired priest, the Rev. Dan Wetzler, of sexual misconduct with a minor.

Wetzler, according to a press release from the Spokane Diocese, has denied the charge.

''This is the first time that a complaint has come in ... since we have been constituted," said Phil Thompson, a retired judge who chairs the review board. ''Our role is to review the circumstances of the accusation and make a recommendation to the bishop. The final decision is the bishop's. If he chooses not to follow our recommendation we are free to go public ... and show there is a conflict."

Sex abuse victims and their supporters are keeping a close eye on how Spokane Bishop William Skylstad will handle the allegation against Wetzler.

The Spokane bishop is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has spent much of the last year creating a policy to address the national scandal of sexual abuse by clergy.

The diocese learned about the allegation against Wetzler last Friday after someone spoke to Skylstad, said the Rev. Steve Dublinski, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese.

The bishop immediately removed Wetzler from ministry and contacted the police, in accordance with the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the nation's bishops earlier this month.

This is the first allegation against Wetzler, who was ordained 39 years ago.

''Everything that we know has been turned over to the police department," Dublinski said. ''Our hope is to create a safe environment and an atmosphere of trust and confidence."

The incident in the complaint against Wetzler dates back to 1966 or 1967, Dublinski said. Al Odenthal, deputy chief of the Spokane Police Department, said the incident occurred outside the city limits. The case has been turned over to the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, he said.

On Tuesday, the diocese's review board examined the initial report and asked the diocese to conduct its own investigation. Who will conduct the diocese's investigation was unclear Wednesday. Dublinski said he is ''in the process" of starting that probe.

''At our meeting yesterday, we concurred with the bishop's decision to investigate and give both sides a chance to present their sides," Thompson said.

The main focus of the review board, he said, will be on the findings from police and diocese investigations. Parties involved in the complaint may address the review board, but are not required to do so, he said.

Wetzler, who retired in early July after 10 years as pastor of St. Pashchal's in the Spokane Valley, has been temporarily suspended from ministry, Dublinski said. Wetzler, who now lives in Harrison, Idaho, is the diocese's liaison for charismatic worship.

Whether he will be reinstated will depend on the results of the investigation, Dublinski said.

So far this fall, the Spokane Diocese has given police information about 13 priests accused of sexual abuse of minors. Skylstad has named seven of the priests; the other six are deceased.

Odenthal said information from the diocese involves about 30 cases that two detectives are reviewing. He said police have forwarded cases ''in the double digits" to be reviewed by prosecutors, even though it appears criminal charges are unlikely.

Statutes of limitations for criminal charges have expired in many of the cases. However, former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett and others have recently announced an effort to ask the Legislature to change the statutes of limitation for child rape and child sexual abuse. In many cases, people who were victimized as children only begin to speak about the trauma when they are well into adulthood.

Skylstad's decision to immediately remove Wetzler from ministry was praised by members of the local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

''It gives us a sense of hope that he will fulfill the policies and norms (of the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People)," said Molly Harding, one of the group's founding members.

Thompson said, ''I think this particular case indicates how committed the bishop is to follow the format they drafted. That he will take action and will do what he promised to do as far as a public airing."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.