Priest Is Removed from Role

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
February 25, 2006

PEORIA — A theologian, priest and author has been removed from ministry after being accused of sexually abusing a boy in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet about 25 years ago.

The Rev. William Dennis Virtue, 57, denies the allegation, but has agreed to step down from public ministry, the Peoria Catholic Diocese said. Virtue has served in about 10 central Illinois churches since joining the Peoria Diocese in 1988 and most recently was administrator of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Earlville, northwest of Ottawa.

Virtue also had served at three parishes in the Rockford Diocese, and until two weeks ago was parochial administrator of St. James Church in Lee, a town in Lee County.

"We were notified by the Peoria Diocese on Feb. 13, at which time we rescinded his priestly faculties. He was told to vacate the premises by the next morning," said Owen Phelps, spokesman for the Rockford Diocese.

The Peoria Diocese said the abuse allegedly occurred while Virtue served in the Joliet Diocese, but provided no further details "out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved."

A spokeswoman for the diocese declined further comment Friday. A spokesman for the Joliet Diocese was at a funeral Friday and unavailable for comment, according to his office.

Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky asked Virtue to step down after the abuse allegation surfaced, the Peoria Diocese said in a statement Thursday. Although Virtue says he is innocent, he agreed to no longer function as a priest in any public capacity, wear clerical garb or use the title "Reverend" or "Father," according to the statement.

"It just hurts you so bad to hear it," said Helen Johanns, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Farmer City, where Virtue served from 2001 to 2003. "I thought he was a wonderful priest. I thought he was a very nice person."

In the written statement, Jenky said he prays daily for all victims of sexual abuse.

"I send my heartfelt apologies to all those affected and pray that our Lord will heal the wounds resulting from this abuse," Jenky said.

The Catholic Directory, which lists assignments for all priests, indicates that Virtue was ordained in 1975 and served at parishes in the Joliet Diocese for 10 years. His assignments include St. Mary Magdalene, Joliet (1976-77); St. Dominic, Bolingbrook (1978-80); St. Mary Nativity, Joliet (1981); St. Mary, Mokena (1982); and Sacred Heart, Joliet (1983-86).

The directory indicates Virtue was on duty outside the Joliet Diocese during 1987-88, and there are no listings for 1989-90.

The Peoria Diocese lists several assignments for Virtue from 1991 to 1999. For 2000-02, he is listed as on duty outside the diocese at a seminary at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., in the Baltimore Archdiocese. A spokeswoman for the seminary said Virtue had been an assistant professor of moral theology and systematics, the study of evolution.

In an interview with Canticle Magazine in 1998, Virtue talked at length about his 1995 dissertation, "Mother and Infant: The Moral Theology of Motherhood." He said he was a follower and friend of the late Herbert Ratner, a doctor described as the father of the La Leche League. Virtue researched and wrote about breastfeeding and how expectant mothers should use touch to connect with their unborn child.

"It was delightful to see these intimately and passionate maternal realities acknowledged in a book of the utmost moral seriousness," wrote a reviewer in the religious journal Caleum Et Terra.

Minneapolis attorney Jeff Anderson said his office represents a man who says he is a victim of sexual abuse by Virtue, and that the man does not want to disclose his identity at this time.


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