Neighbors' Anxiety Torpedoes Plan to House Troubled Priests

By Tim Rowden
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Missouri]
April 8, 2004

Faced with fear and anger from Jefferson County residents, a religious order has scrapped its plan to develop a retreat near Pacific for troubled priests, including some accused of having sex with children.

Servants of the Paraclete, an order of Catholic priests who tend to troubled priests and members of other religious orders, had sought to change the zoning on 226 acres off Wade Road in far northwestern Jefferson County to allow for development of the retreat. The area is densely wooded, with steep, winding roads curving past older and many newer homes on multiacre lots.

The Rev. Peter Lechner, servant general of the Paraclete, said he withdrew the request from the county zoning board this week, after meeting with about 80 neighboring property owners. The neighbors - many of them parents of young children - worried that bringing the retreat into their community would endanger their children and threaten their property values.

"I would characterize the meeting as a very respectful dialogue, in which there were very strong feelings of anger and fear but also love," Lechner said. "I understand the love that people have for their children. It's because of that, and their fear of having priests who have acted inappropriately in a pedophilic manner in the past, that I feel that it's best for us not to pursue the project."

The retreat would have combined the programs of the Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer and the St. Michael's Community in Sunset Hills and would have housed about 24 priests. The Vianney center treats some priests who are not likely to return to active parish life. The center also houses registered sex offenders.

St. Michael's helps priests who need counseling and might one day be able to return to their duties.

Lechner said the Paracletes would continue to operate those facilities and had no plans to seek a new location.

"One of the ladies, who was trying to be particularly objective, did say to me ... that the people were willing to accept the Servants of the Paraclete into the community, also willing to accept our treatment program at St. Michael's into their community; but they had very strong feelings and concerns about the program for priests who could no longer go back to ministry," Lechner said.

Julie Taylor, whose family lives on 13 acres near the Wade Road property, said she was surprised and relieved by Lechner's decision.

Taylor has a 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She said she had worried about the possibility of her children running into one of the priests while exploring the woods behind their house.

"Father Lechner has been nothing but kind and respectful to us," Taylor said. "I think he's passionate about what he does. I just think he chose the wrong place to do it."

Reporter Tim Rowden:
Phone: 636-500-4110


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