Priest Removed As Sexual Allegations Surface

By Barton Deiters and Charles Honey
Grand Rapids Press
January 8, 2007

Parishioners at a Catholic church in Caledonia are shocked by allegations that a priest connected to the parish has been forced out of the clergy following allegations of sexual abuse of a child.

Holy Family priest David LeBlanc admitted to sexually abusing a preteen boy in Muskegon in 1971, according to Bishop Walter Hurley.

LeBlanc was serving St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church at the time, but Hurley said the alleged incident did not happen at the church.

"We're all very sad about it," said Ellen Lehnert, a longtime member of Holy Family and a member of the pastoral council. "It is a very big shock. He's just a super good guy and a very good priest."

LeBlanc was permanently removed from active ministry last week, Hurley said.

This is the fourth priest with ties to the parish that has been removed from pastoral duties. In 2002, Michael Walsh was defrocked after 40-year-old allegations were discovered. At the same time, Donald Heydens, who molested four teenage girls in the early 1970s, and Rev. Dennis Wagner, who sexually abused six boys in the 1980s, were removed in May from duties.

None of the alleged incidents occurred in Caledonia, according to the Grand Rapids Diocese, which oversees the parish.

Hurley said the victim in the latest case came forward in 1993, and LeBlanc acknowledged the abuse at that time. The bishop said he came across the case in a thorough review of files on priests who had been accused of abuse.

After talking to LeBlanc and communicating by e-mail with the victim, who is out of the country, Hurley said he had no choice but to remove him under provisions of the U.S. bishops' charter on sexual abuse issued in 2002. The policy calls for permanently removing priests for a single, substantiated case of sexual abuse of a minor.

"I became aware of it, and I believed I needed to do that," said Hurley, who became bishop in 2005. "I am obligated as a bishop to follow the requirements of the charter, for the well-being of the church and protection of victims."

Since the bishops' policy took effect, eight other priests in the diocese have been removed for abuse cases going back decades. Asked why LeBlanc was not, Hurley said, "I just don't know the answer to that."

Most of the priests were removed by retired Bishop Robert Rose, who led the diocese from 1989 to 2003. Hurley would not second-guess why Rose did not remove LeBlanc soon after he admitted the abuse, saying before the U.S. bishops' policy "there was no consistency in the way cases were handled, (and) there really was no road map people could follow."

"There obviously was a belief (LeBlanc) did not represent a danger to anyone," Hurley said. "I don't know of any bishop that would maintain somebody in a position if they really believed they were a danger to young people."

Given the fact Rose retired a year after the national policy was passed, then his successor, Bishop Kevin Britt, died in 2004 and the diocese was temporarily managed by Monsignor William Duncan and Detroit's Cardinal Adam Maida, Hurley added, "It's not surprising something like this may not have been reviewed" before he took office.

Rose could not be reached for comment.

Hurley said information was being turned over to Muskegon County Prosecutor Tony Tague, but after 35 years, the statute of limitations has long since run out when it comes to pursuing a criminal case.

Parishioners of Holy Family were informed of the decision by a letter sent Saturday, although some still were unaware even after attending Sunday services.

Parishioner Deborah Haney believed LeBlanc simply was on vacation when told he had been removed. She said no one mentioned it at Mass Sunday.

"All I knew was religious education classes were canceled (Monday night), but I didn't think the weather was that bad," she said.

One of the diocese's larger parishes with about 1,200 families, Holy Family will hold a meeting at 7 tonight with the Rev. Thomas Page, the diocese's associate vicar for priests.

Priests at the other parishes LeBlanc served will inform their parishioners. Although he has no reason to believe there are other victims, Hurley said, "if there are, we would want to know about it."

Hurley said there are no other allegations being investigated or cases pending to remove a priest.

"To the best of my knowledge, this brings to a close where we had established or acknowledged cases of sexual abuse," he said.

He also said he was not aware of any common thread between LeBlanc's case and those of three other priests removed for abuse who once served at Holy Family.

"I'm really saddened, and I really apologize to the families who have been abused by priests or other representatives of the church," Hurley said.

Michael Hollern, who has attended Holy Family as long as LeBlanc was leading the parish, said the connections to his church are a sad fluke, nothing more.

"It may seem strange to some, but I believe it is all coincidence," said Hollern, also a member of the pastoral council who has high praise for LeBlanc's pastoral performance. "You know, we're all sinners and God can forgive and forget, but people cannot forgive and forget."

"If he admitted this, it's not the same Father Dave I know," he said.

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