Blame, Authority Are Elusive in Case of Priest

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Missouri]
September 19, 2004

When you discover an admitted pedophile priest is living in your neighborhood - near your kids' school - the first question you might ask is, "How did that happen?" The answer turns out, at least in the case of the Rev. William Wiebler, to be buried beneath layers of legal peculiarities and institutional blame dodging.

In 2002, after Wiebler admitted to the sexual abuse of children in the 1970s and 1980s in Davenport, Iowa, Bishop William E. Franklin of the Davenport diocese asked the priest to check into the St. John Vianney Renewal Center in Jefferson County. The Vianney center is one of a handful of such facilities in the U.S. and Canada that treat priests with emotional and chemical problems.

Wiebler, 72, retired from the priesthood in 1991. He agreed to move to Missouri and live in the Vianney center, but last spring he decided to move to an apartment building in University City about 750 feet from an elementary school.

Wiebler was never charged with a crime. The statute of limitations in Iowa had run out when he was accused of abuse. He is the responsibility of the Davenport bishop, but that diocese has no legal way to force Wiebler to do anything against his will, including return to the Vianney center.

Because Wiebler has never asked to serve as a priest within the archdiocese of St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke also has no authority to take action against him.

The treatment center Wiebler agreed to live in, and subsequently left, is one of two such facilities near St. Louis. The Vianney center and RECON, also known as the Wounded Brothers Project, are about six miles from each other along the boundary of Jefferson and Franklin counties, 30 miles southwest of St. Louis. Three of RECON's residents are listed on Franklin County's registry of convicted sexual offenders, and the Vianney Center has four residents who are listed on Jefferson County's sexual-offender registry.

The Vianney center also accepts priests who have not been convicted, but who have had lawsuits or allegations leveled against them. The Rev. Peter Lechner, director of the Vianney center, said it is rare that a priest leaves the center without permission, but that when it does happen "the situation is reviewed and dealt with appropriately." Men who have been convicted of child sexual abuse typically have probation requirements that have to be followed by both the priest and the center, said Lechner.

But he also said that those who run the center are "conscious of the concerns the community has" and that the facility "provides a structure and a system that guarantees - as much as can be expected - that people in the area, and especially children, would not be placed in any risk."

Lechner said that since his facility opened 15 years ago, only two priests who left early stayed in the St. Louis archdiocese.

"Frankly, if you take the current situation, there is a lot of interest in Wiebler," he said. "And that's what happens if a priest were to strike out from here on his own," he said. "He's likely to attract attention."

Wiebler's neighbors say he's been living in his apartment since May. Lechner said that if a priest leaves the treatment center prematurely, "we always inform the diocese."

Rand Wonio, a lawyer for the Davenport diocese, told the Post-Dispatch last week that the diocese only learned Wiebler had left the treatment center "a few weeks ago" and that the diocese had no idea where Wiebler was living.

In fact, the diocese has known Wiebler's current address since at least the first week of July. In a July 7 phone call and letter, Wonio told St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch that Wiebler had left the Vianney center and was living in an apartment in University City.

"This letter confirms our telephone conversation of this morning regarding Father William Wiebler," the letter to McCulloch reads. "Irene Prior Loftus, Chancellor of the Diocese of Davenport and I called to inform you that William Wiebler had recently left a residential treatment center operated by the Servants of the Paraclete in the St. Louis area ... The diocese of Davenport has no legal ability to require William Wiebler to stay at the facility. We wanted to inform you, however, of his whereabouts. His address is ..."

Wonio said when the diocese learned Wiebler had left the Vianney center, he also immediately contacted the St. Louis archdiocese.

But the St. Louis archdiocese said last week that Loftus informed it of Wiebler's presence in the archdiocese on Sept. 10.

"The archdiocese is unfamiliar with his background and has no jurisdiction over him, particularly because his faculties - his rights to act as a priest - were taken away from him by Davenport ...," it said in a statement.

Thursday evening the Santa Claus-looking Wiebler sat on his porch swing, dressed in white boxer shorts and dark sunglasses, smoking a cigar. When approached by a reporter, he got up and went inside his apartment.

A neighbor, Mimi Hubert, said Wiebler frequents shops in the Delmar Loop. "Otherwise he's usually just on his porch, listening to opera and smoking cigars," she said.

David Montgomery, a spokesman for the Davenport diocese, said the diocese knew very little about Wiebler's life between the time he left the state to move to Mississippi in 1985 and his return in 2002. He did not specify why Wiebler moved to Mississippi.

Roger Courts is the former director and chief executive of the Sacred Heart League, a Catholic missionary and social-service society in northern Mississippi. Wiebler worked for the publishing arm of the Sacred Heart League, as a writer, from 1985 until his retirement in 1991.

Courts described Wiebler as "very well liked" among his 120 colleagues at the society. "Everyone considered him a compassionate and good priest," he said. "People went to Father Bill when they had a problem because he was the epitome of a caring priest."

He said he remembered one pamphlet Wiebler had written called "The Donkey's Tale," which, he said, "at first glance was a children's Christmas story, but the story was ageless and appealed to older people as well." He said the story was so popular the society had a video version of it made.

After he retired, Wiebler moved to Florida, and Courts received letters from him when he was working part time as a cruise ship chaplain.

Courts said there were never any indications that Wiebler was a pedophile in Mississippi, and he had no memory of any bizarre behavior. When he read a newspaper article last week about Wiebler, Courts said he kept thinking it was a mistake. "I thought it had to be about somebody else," he said. "But as I kept reading, I realized it really was Father Bill."


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