Abuse Allegation against Ex-Sparta, Ill., Priest Goes to Vatican
Case May Be Decided in Rome, or Sent Back to Belleville Diocese

By Patricia Rice
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
April 9, 2003

The Vatican, following procedures adopted last year, is investigating allegations against the Rev. William Rensing, former pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sparta, Ill.

In October, the diocese's sex abuse review board advised Bishop Wilton Gregory to put Rensing on administrative leave, pending an investigation of allegations that he had abused a minor in 1970. Rensing has denied the allegations.

"After preliminary investigations by a diocese, a case now should go to the (Vatican) Congregation for the Doctrine," said the Rev. Arthur Espelage, executive director of the Canon Law Society of America, from his Washington office.

The Franciscan priest and canon (church) lawyer was one of about 200 American canon lawyers who attended one of two Vatican-led, weeklong seminars on several new laws at the John Paul II Center in Washington in January. The laws include the norms approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last November, which enforce portions of the U.S. bishops' charter to protect children, passed last June in Dallas.

"The (Vatican) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has sole responsibility for the process either directly, or in delegating it to other courts," Espelage said. "In some cases they will try the case in R ome. In other cases they will return the case to the diocese, where, following the norms, three to five judges - none of them from that diocese - will try the case and then decide on the punishment."

If Rensing is found guilty, he could not have any public ministry. However, because he is 70, if found guilty his punishment might exclude removing him from the clerical state completely, which would allow him retirement benefits. The norms allow an elderly or ill priest to remain in the clerical state, and receive diocese retirement benefits, without public ministry.

In Rensing's case, the Vatican had received letters from Southern Illinois residents questioning the way the Belleville diocese was handling the ongoing investigation, said Monsignor James Margason, vicar general of the Belleville diocese. Margason says this may be the first time that a third party - not the priest, not the accuser - has intervened with the Vatican.

This is not the first case to be handled by Rome since November. Several cases are already in Rome, and many dioceses are preparing the paper work to send contested cases to the Vatican. The St. Louis Archdiocese has no cases in Rome now, a spokesman said.

David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, hopes that the new procedure quickly returns most cases to the United States. Although his group prefers for cases to be tried in criminal and civil courts, diocesan tribunals with American judges are better than judges from other nations in a court "half a world away," he said.

"History suggests that the Vatican bureaucrats have not been sympathetic to victims of sexual abuse," he said.


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