Abusive Priests Often End up in St. Louis

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch [Missouri]
March 19, 2005

The Rev. James McGreal of Seattle has admitted to sexually abusing hundreds of children between the 1960s and 1980s. The Seattle archdiocese has so far agreed to pay almost $10 million to 26 of those victims, but because of Washington's statute of limitations, McGreal has never been convicted of a crime. Because McGreal can't be sent to jail and has never been laicized (or defrocked) he is the responsibility of Seattle's archbishops.

For the last 20 years McGreal, now 81, has been living at the Vianney Renewal Center, near Dittmer in Jefferson County. Vianney and a nearby facility called RECON are the only two places in the country where bishops can permanently send dangerous pedophile priests.

"For those who need to be in a completely supervised environment there are two centers, which as providence would have it, are both in this archdiocese in the United States," said St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke in a recent interview.

Three years after the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis broke in Boston, U.S. bishops are struggling to figure out what to do with priests who have been removed from ministry for sexual abuse of minors.

"This is a significant issue," said Sheila Kelly, deputy executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops's Office of Child and Youth Protection.

"The basic concern is - are these people living and working in circumstances where they cannot continue to abuse children?"

The church reports that about 300 priests have been temporarily removed from ministry; the number permanently removed is unknown. What is certain is that the number is far greater than the roughly 40 priests the two Missouri facilities can handle, so dioceses have to be creative. That might mean, as it does in St. Louis, housing a handful of pedophile priests in the local archdiocesan retirement home. Or, as in the Chicago archdiocese, designating a facility just for priests with sexual disorders - a model several dioceses might be looking to emulate. Still others, like the Belleville priests removed from ministry in that diocese's mid-1990s sexual abuse scandal, simply live on their own in private residences.

"Probably there are a number of dioceses who have yet to find an appropriate way in which to take care of these individuals," said Kathleen McChesney who, last month, left her position as executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops's Office of Child and Youth Protection. "There isn't a lot of guidance, not a lot of good models yet, as the best way to do this."

McChesney said efforts to confront the problem "are under way" within the U.S. bishops' conference. Burke said he would welcome the idea of guidelines.

But victims of clergy sexual abuse and those concerned about the welfare of children are not likely to have much patience with U.S. bishops. They are asking plenty of questions now about who is ultimately responsible for these men when the state is not. How much responsibility does a pedophile priest's own bishop have for the protection of children thousands of miles away? Should Seattle's archbishop, Alexander J. Brunett, be responsible for keeping daily tabs on McGreal in Missouri, for instance? Are the religious orders or men who run the facilities responsible if one of the residents walks away? Although the judicial system says such men are free, they are not innocent.

"Thank God that a number of these men, notwithstanding the horrible crimes they've committed, have the virtue to know that they need this help and will remain in such an institution," said Burke. "But I don't know what we can do with those men who are refusing to be in a protective environment."

Bishops trying to take responsibility for their problem priests are left with few options, said Greg Magnoni, a spokesman for Seattle's archdiocese. More often than not, they turn to the Missouri facilities for help.

"What would people suggest a diocese do with men who have admitted their offense and who want to be watched over and protected?" Magnoni asks.

Often judges, not bishops, make the decision to send pedophile priests to Missouri.

In 1996 two priests, the Rev. Thomas S. Schaefer, now 79, and the Rev. Alphonsus Smith, now 80, were sentenced to 16-year prison terms in Maryland for abusing boys in the 1970s and 1980s. Four months later, Circuit Judge William B. Spellbring Jr. reduced their sentences to five years of supervised probation, and sent them to be treated in Missouri. They completed probation in 2001 at the Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer, but remain at the facility.

In a recent interview Spellbring said he decided to take the men out of jail because their crimes had taken place long ago.

Spellbring said he was told the priests would not have access to children, but he must rely on others to enforce that. He said his decision to let the priests out of jail might be different today.

"It was never my intent to let these men die in jail ... but I'm not sure I would have let them out so soon had I known (the clergy sexual abuse crisis) was going to explode the way it did," he said. "At that point you have to take a stand and let the victims know you are behind them."

Critics say judges around the country are asked by bishops to send pedophile priests here instead of to jail, arguing that private, church-run centers save tax dollars. But David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said "recent history shows the church has failed at this duty. Priests don't reform other priests."


A religious order called the Servants of the Paraclete runs the Vianney Renewal Center in Ditmer in Jefferson County and until recently a flagship retreat center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. The order does not have a sterling record.

In 2002 the order was forced to close the treatment wing of its New Mexico center. Troubled priests from other states were sent to the center in the 1960s and 1970s. After treatment, an unknown number of pedophiles were dispatched to serve in New Mexico parishes.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe was subsequently the target of 187 sexual abuse cases. Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan expelled 20 priests after he took over the archdiocese in 1993. Late that year, the Servants of the Paraclete agreed to pay $5.6 million to settle cases of childhood sexual abuse that occured after a priest had left their treatment center. When the entire center closed for good in May, five priests were moved to the order's Missouri facility in rural Jefferson County.

The Servants of the Paraclete are an order of priests founded in 1947 in New Mexico. According to its Web site the order is "dedicated to ministry to priests and brothers with personal difficulties." The Servants' treatment consists of "holistic therapeutic programs . . . (combining) the best in spirituality, psychiatry, psychology, theology, medicine, sexuality, social awareness and physiology."

The order opened Vianney Renewal Center in 1990. The Servants also run St. Michael's Community in Sunset Hills, which treats priests who suffer from depression, alcoholism or other ills but are considered likely to return to their duties.

Last spring the Servants tried to expand their 10-acre Vianney facility to 226 acres off Wade Road in far northwestern Jefferson County. But county residents protested, and the priests scrapped the project.

The Rev. Peter Lechner, a priest and clinical psychologist who runs Vianney and is the Servants' leader, has said that priests who live there can leave only with permission from Vianney officials and that if priests don't agree to the rules, they must leave.

At least seven of the priests who live in the two Missouri facilities are registered sex offenders, but most have never been convicted of a crime. Those who live at the facilities in lieu of jail are usually under stricter monitoring than those sent there by their bishop and who go voluntarily. But problems occur when a priest living at Vianney walks away.

"One of the problems - and we have a couple of cases in this archdiocese - is that a priest can take off on you and there isn't anything you can do," said Burke. The church doesn't have a police force, he added.

One of those who left Vianney was the Rev. William Wiebler, 72, who admitted to sexually abusing boys in Davenport, Iowa. Last spring, Wiebler moved to an apartment in University City near an elementary school and preschool.

Officials at Vianney informed the Davenport bishop immediately of Wiebler's flight, and the Davenport diocese's attorneys soon told St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. McCulloch's office quickly told University City police, but the Davenport diocese did not tell Burke for at least four months, and only then after Post-Dispatch reported on Wiebler's whereabouts.

In January, the Davenport diocese said 12 more people had come forward to accuse Wiebler of abuse.

Burke said Davenport's bishop is "using every form of moral persuasion to get him to come back."


RECON, also called the Wounded Brothers Project, has been operating since 1993 on a 280-acre wooded tract between Robertsville and Dittmer in eastern Franklin County, about six miles from Vianney.

It also has a mixed record. Last month, a Wisconsin priest, the Rev. David J. Malsch, 66, admitted sending and receiving child pornography from his residence at RECON.

U.S. Attorney Jim Martin said the facility "failed at preventing this priest from committing crimes and deplorable conduct." RECON is a private nonprofit facility run by a Franciscan priest and a social worker. Though the facility is not affiliated with the Franciscan religious order, another Franciscan priest, the Rev. Dismas Bonner, serves on RECON's board.

Neither of the facility's directors, the Rev. Bertin Miller or Mark Matousek, returned a reporter's calls. But Bonner said the facility was not a treatment center. He described it as "a home that's a kind of safe haven for these people to protect both them and society." Bonner said about 20 men live at RECON, but not all of them are there for sexual disorders.

As a nonprofit, RECON is required to file tax documents with the Internal Revenue Service, and does so under three names: RECON, Evergreen Hills Homes Inc. and Il Ritiro (which means "little retreat" in Italian). The last time documents were filed for Il Ritiro was for the fiscal year 2003, but according to fiscal year 2004 tax documents, RECON and Evergreen Hills together had assets totaling over $3 million.

Gross receipts for "services performed" at RECON jumped from $234,000 in 1999 to almost $600,000 in 2002, enabling Miller to nearly double his salary to $71,500 in 2003 from $36,000 in 2000. Matousek's salary jumped to $61,500 from $45,000 in the same period.

Such increases reflect the severity of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in recent years, and the desperate need the Catholic church has for places like Vianney and RECON.

The Diocese of Jefferson City recently said one of its priests, the Rev. John Degnan, who lives at RECON, has at least 17 allegations of child sexual abuse against him. Sister Ethel-Marie Biri, the chancellor of the diocese, said Degnan was sent to RECON in 2002 "because we felt he needed to be supervised for a long time. ... Our plan is that that's where he's going to stay." She said that because Degnan has not been convicted of a crime, he is living at RECON voluntarily, and that the diocese pays his way. If he decides to walk away, "our only lever is financial," said Biri. That means that if the priest left RECON, the diocese would stop supporting him.

Experts in sexual disorders involving children say the only way to make sure an offender's behavior is not repeated is to keep him away from children. Bonner said the men at RECON are "supervised when they go out - if they go out shopping, they have people who drive them and stay with them all the time. They are not roaming around the countryside."

But Brenda Pavlik said her brother-in-law, the Rev. James Pavlik, a St. Louis priest who was removed from ministry in November 2000 and lives at RECON, has plenty of access to children.

"He has a car and goes to visit his mother twice a week alone," she said. "He goes to movies, out to dinner and lunch. He comes to family gatherings at Easter and Christmas and there are plenty of his nephews and nieces around." Another RECON resident, the Rev. Mark Roberts, was sent by a judge to Missouri from Nevada, despite the judge's knowledge that one of Roberts' victims lives 20 minutes from the facility.

Burke met with Miller and Matousek of RECON in February to discuss Roberts' case, but said last week that he did not ask them about the general security of the facility. He said he would not interfere with the way RECON is run.

"That meeting was out of concern for a particular young man whose admitted or confessed abuser is at that facility, and I was meeting with them about that," said Burke. "I did not express to them concerns about their oversight or about their security. I feel badly about this. These people are carrying out a very difficult service and a very important one and I don't want to be taking whacks at them - that's just not my intention at all. It's not our facility."