Priest Cleared of Abuse Someone Else Molested Boy in 1960s, Investigation Finds

By Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)
February 22, 2003

For nearly three months, a dark cloud of suspicion has hovered over the Rev. Dan Wetzler.

After 39 years of service to parishes and schools, the priest found himself accused of sexual abuse in late November.

Spokane Bishop William Skylstad removed him from ministry pending an investigation. The allegation was turned over to police. Wetzler's name and photo appeared in the news.

The 65-year-old priest denied the charge from the very beginning, but it wasn't until Friday that he was publicly exonerated.

An investigation conducted by a former Spokane police detective determined that Wetzler was innocent of the claim that he had molested a boy in the mid-1960s, said Phil Thompson, chairman of the diocesan review board.

''God is great and the people are good," Wetzler said during a brief interview. The last few months have been devastating, he said, but he has been humbled by the overwhelming support he has received from people throughout the diocese.

In a statement released by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Wetzler said: ''I have come to a deeper awareness of the power of prayer, especially of intercessory prayer, and am ever so grateful to all who have supported me in this most devastating time of my priestly life."

The bishop's announcement was received with joy by parishioners at St. Paschal's, a Spokane Valley parish where Wetzler served as pastor for 10 years until his retirement last summer. He is scheduled to celebrate the 10 a.m. Mass there on Sunday.

''We will welcome him back with open arms," said parishioner Dolores Hardin. ''He was so loved by everyone. Praise the Lord, he is with us again."

News of the allegations against Wetzler devastated many of the more than 500 families at St. Paschal's, parishioners said. Although he retired in July, he was the diocese's liaison for charismatic renewal and often returned to St. Paschal's to celebrate Mass on Saturday evenings.

''I was ripped apart," said Laurie McCullough, who credits Wetzler for putting God in her life. ''We were in total disbelief that such a gentle, kind man could be accused of such a thing."

The allegation against Wetzler came one month after Skylstad released the names of six priests who had also been accused of sexual abuse. Unlike Wetzler who adamantly denied the accusation against him, the six priests have admitted to the bishop that they had committed the abuse.

In accordance with the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the nation's bishops last year, Skylstad immediately removed Wetzler from ministry and contacted police after learning of the accusation.

The incident in question dates back to 1965 or 1966, Thompson said. The investigation concluded that the victim was indeed inappropriately touched and fondled by someone, Thompson said, but the person who abused him was not Wetzler, based on the evidence found by the investigator. The victim - who was 11 or 12 years old at the time - was molested by a counselor, Thompson said. Wetzler had never served in a counseling position.

''Contrary to the victim's belief, Father Wetzler did not know him or his family," Thompson said. Wetzler also voluntarily took and passed a polygraph test.

Because the victim wants to remain anonymous, Thompson declined to release any more details about the abuse. Neither the victim nor the diocese know the identity of the abuser, Thompson said. The victim hasn't requested counseling from the diocese.

No other victims came forward after the bishop announced the allegation.

Results of the investigation were given to Skylstad, who decided the allegation was unfounded. Thompson and other members of the review board concurred with the bishop.

Although Skylstad followed the zero tolerance policy adopted by the bishops, his decision to name Wetzler and temporarily remove him from ministry was denounced by some.

''Father Dan was the victim," said McCullough. ''His name, his whole reputation, has been slandered."

''The accusation was bogus from the start," said Dale Strom. ''Father Wetzler is one of the great leaders of the local church."

The diocese, however, had no choice but to follow the policy, Skylstad said.

In the same way that school districts suspend an accused teacher until the incident is investigated, dioceses also must temporarily remove priests from ministry, he said in a press release.

''Difficult as it is at times to order a suspension pending an investigation, I hope Father Wetzler's many friends understand that when it comes to allegations of the abuse of a minor ... suspension pending the outcome of an investigation has to be done to assure parents that we are doing everything possible to protect their children," he said.

Wetzler isn't the first priest to be wrongly accused. Last year, the top canon lawyer in the Boston Archdiocese was removed from ministry twice after accusations from a former altar boy, who also filed a lawsuit. Monsignor Michael Smith Foster was reinstated and the lawsuit dismissed after newspaper reporters found factual errors in the accuser's accounts. The accuser also had a history of making up stories.

The late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, considered one of the nation's most talented and respected Catholic leaders, also was falsely accused of sexual molestation.

Determining the innocence or guilt of anyone accused of a crime is always a problem for everyone, whether it's the church or civil society, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of the national Catholic magazine ''America."

''To expect the church to be able to do this better than 'Law and Order' is quite naive," he said.

After the nationwide explosion of clergy sex abuse cases last year, American Catholics had a sense that the rights of priests were overprotected while the rights of victims remained underprotected, said Gonzaga University religious studies professor Pat McCormick.

''Now, the bishops are trying to show that they're paying strong attention to the victims," he said. ''Because innocent people will sometimes be accused, we have to figure out how to balance the rights of the accused with the rights of victims."

In the past, bishops tried to protect the reputation of priests by keeping investigations secret - which is why the system failed, Reese said. These investigations must be done publicly, he said.

''Bishop Skylstad did the right thing because this man's name has now been cleared," Reese said. He also commended the review board's decision to hire a former police detective who was not only impartial but also had the investigating experience.

''This is what needs to be done to clear the name of good priests so they can return to ministry," Reese said.

Some innocent priests suffer as a result, he said, but ''we as priests have to say that it's better for us to be falsely accused then have our names cleared in order to protect children."


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