Priest from St. Louis Area Accused in Bangladesh

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
January 13, 2011

The Rev. William Christensen, formerly of Kirkwood, helps raise money for self-help projects he started in Bangladesh as a Marianist missionary priest. (file photo)

A former St. Louis priest and teacher who was ordered removed from the priesthood by the Vatican after being accused of sexually abusing as many as 30 teenagers in Bangladesh is taking his accuser to court.

The priest, the Rev. William Christensen, has appealed the Vatican ruling, and has filed a lawsuit in Bangladesh seeking $1.4 million in damages against his accuser, a former nun, Rosaline Costa.

Christensen, a priest in the Society of Mary, or Marianists, taught at Chaminade College Preparatory School in the 1970s. The U.S. leader of the order confirmed Wednesday that Christensen was laicized on Oct. 29 by the Vatican after it had investigated several accusations of sexual abuse against the priest in Bangladesh and "judged the accusations to be credible."

The allegations first came to light publicly Wednesday in a story published by the Bangkok-based news service, the Union of Catholic Asian News.

Costa was the treasurer from 2001 to 2007 for a nongovernmental organization, the Institute of Integrated Rural Development, founded by Christensen in 1987. The purpose of the organization, which has an office in St. Louis, is "empowering the rural poor to end their own poverty," according to its website.

According to the news reports, Costa, now human rights coordinator for Hotline (Human Rights) Bangladesh, said that Christensen used his organization as a front to sexually abuse at least 30 Muslim teenagers in rural Bangladesh, and pay for their silence along with that of their parents and local political and community leaders.

Christensen has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

Christensen and Costa appeared Wednesday in a courtroom in Bangladesh's Netrokona district, about 100 miles from the capital, Dhaka.

Christensen left St. Louis in the 1980s and began doing economic development work among the poor in India and Nepal. In 1986, he moved to Bangladesh and the following year founded the Institute of Integrated Rural Development.

Over the last two decades, Christensen has on occasion returned to St. Louis to ask friends and former students here for donations to his organization.

In early 2008, after Costa said teenagers began coming to her with allegations of abuse by Christensen, she notified the man who then led U.S. Marianists, Brother Stephen Glodek, and asked that he take Christensen out of Bangladesh.

In an interview Wednesday, Glodek said that he refused to remove Christensen from Bangladesh but that in April he sent Costa an e-mail asking for more information and promising to begin the investigative process "according to our USA guidelines in these matters."

Costa sent Glodek the names and addresses of two people who had accused Christensen of abuse, but "within weeks," according to Glodek, the alleged victims had retracted their accusations.

Costa then took her case to the Vatican's ambassador in Bangladesh and the archbishop of Dhaka.

But it wasn't until July 2010 that the Vatican began a three-month investigation. On Oct. 12, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith received a final report on the investigation, and on Oct. 29, it issued its decree of laicization.

The Rev. Martin Solma, provincial for the U.S. Marianists, said in a statement Wednesday that "when the accusations were deemed credible, the (Vatican's ambassador) in Bangladesh informed all the dioceses in Bangladesh of this information."

On Nov. 29, Christensen appealed his laicization.

"Until the appeal is settled, he remains a priest and a member of the Society of Mary," Solma said.

The accusations led one bishop in Bangladesh to send a letter to the Vatican's ambassador to Bangladesh seeking answers.

"I wonder why and how the superiors of this religious man allowed him to stay alone and to go on doing any such thing embarking on the strength of his money," wrote Bishop Gervas Rozario, according to Union of Catholic Asian News.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the Marianists "have been secretive and reckless with Christensen for years."

"They kept silent about the Bangladesh allegations for years ... and their secrecy enables Christensen to be around more kids," he continued.

An official with the Archdiocese of St. Louis said religious orders were responsible for their own clergy.

"It is the practice of the church that priests who are members of a religious order are the direct responsibility of the religious order as led by the superior of the order," Monsignor Vernon Gardin, vicar general for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said.

One of Christensen's former students, Michael Powel, accused the priest of sexually abusing him when they were both at Chaminade in the 1970s. The case, Powel v. Chaminade, was well known for a 2006 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that added new wording on how the statute of limitations can be applied, essentially allowing a court to consider when a victim not only recalled the abuse, but recognized the harm it inflicted.

Attorneys for alleged victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests say Powel v. Chaminade has allowed cases that previously had little chance of seeing a courtroom to proceed to trial, therefore increasing settlement amounts the church is willing to pay out. Powel died in 2008; his family later settled the case.

Christensen could not be reached through the Institute of Integrated Rural Development.

In an interview with the Post-Dispatch at a 2007 fundraiser for the organization at BB's Jazz, Blues, and Soups in downtown St. Louis, Christensen spoke about the Powel case.

Christensen, dressed in a purple stocking cap, a blue windbreaker, khakis and tennis shoes, said that he "didn't know Michael real well" and that "all his claims of me being his confessor and abusing him are totally false. I hardly knew him, and I don't know why he's putting my name in there."

Many of the 50 or so attendees at the fundraiser were former Chaminade students and their families. Christensen said at the time that he was "frustrated" by Powel's accusation.

"I was depressed about it for a long time," he said. "But I've learned not to let it disturb me. I'm a follower of Jesus. He was a much better person than I am, and he was crucified on the cross."



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