'Most abusive' priest worked in Gaylord, Sleepy Eye

By Dan Nienaber
Makato Free Press
September 17, 2014

An abusive priest, who a top church official with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis described as one of the "most abusive" to work in the archdiocese, spent time serving parishes in Gaylord and Sleepy Eye.

That description of the Rev. Louis Heitzer, who served as a priest from 1942 until he died in 1969, was made by former Vicar Gen. Kevin McDonough, the next highest-ranking official after the archbishop. He was responding to a letter written to him in 2002 by a woman concerned about the sexual abuse her brother and other boys experienced while Heitzer was working in Franklin from 1950 to 1954.

"As I have come to know more about what Louis Heitzer did, I believe he was perhaps the most abusive priest to ever be a part of this archdiocese," McDonough's letter said. "I now believe he abused boys every place he went."

The letter was in Heitzer's priest file, which had been provided by the archdiocese for a court case where an abuse victim is being represented by the Jim Anderson & Associates law firm. The firm is working with many victims throughout the state and has been leading an effort to have Catholic leaders release all the information they have about abusive priests who work, or have worked, in Minnesota.

There are 185 pages of information in the Heitzer file showing he spent much of his time as a priest working in churches that are now part of the New Ulm Diocese. The documents also show archbishops were very aware of numerous allegations against him by parishioners and their children. As the allegations arose Heitzer was moved to different churches.

"At least three archbishops knew of Heitzer's inappropriate behavior with children and numerous parents sent letters to church officials detailing accounts of sexual abuse by Heitzer," Anderson said in a news release when he made the file public Tuesday. "Meetings were held in rural parishes with parents of several youths who claimed to have witnessed or experienced abuse by Heitzer."

Multiple moves

His last assignment, which came after church officials sent him to a hospital and a halfway house for priests in Nevis called Our Lady of the Snow to deal with his "problem," was in the New Ulm Diocese. Heitzer was sent to work as a chaplain at a nursing home in Ivanhoe until he died of a heart attack in 1969. His funeral was at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm, with Archbishop Leo Byrne officiating, and he was buried in the Cathedral Cemetery in New Ulm.

When Heitzer was ordained as a priest in 1942, he listed 610 N. Broadway in New Ulm as his "vacation address." He was born in Germany, but there are no documents showing where Heitzer lived before he moved to St. Paul to become a priest.

Heitzer served at three different churches and a school between 1944 and 1945 before he was assigned to the St. Mary Help of Christians grade school in Sleepy Eye. He served there from 1945 to 1948.

There were five more church assignments between 1948 and 1955, which is when he was assigned to Church of St. Michael in Gaylord. That assignment included a letter from the archbishop that is the first document in the file, chronologically, to mention there were "circumstances" that required him to be moved from a church in Rosen.

"Circumstances have arisen at Rosen of which you have more detailed knowledge than I possess that make it advisable for you to enter another field of service," the letter said.

Clear knowledge

A letter dated Sept. 27, 1955, from the archbishop and addressed to Heitzer is much more clear about what those circumstances were. That letter also says the archbishop had learned about allegations made while Heitzer was in Gaylord.

"Information has come to me concerning repetition of your conduct with boys that was the occasion of your transfer from other parishes on several instances," the letter said.

The letter also questions Heitzer's ability to control himself and suggests he should consider treatment. A letter relieving him of his duties in Gaylord wasn't sent by the archbishop until July 30, 1956.

A week later Heitzer was assigned to a church in Clearwater. The archbishop became concerned again about a year later when a parishioner or parishioners there threatened to take Heitzer and the diocese to civil court. A letter from the archbishop said he would be suspended if that happened.

"Since their complaints fit into the pattern of other similar complaints from the past, I have to presume there is some basis for their concern," the letter said.

Letters that were exchanged after Heitzer was sent to other churches and much later after a story about Heitzer ran in the Star Tribune in 2002 describe the allegations that were being made by boys. They had told their parents, other family members and church officials Heitzer would sexually abuse them during fishing and swimming trips to a lake, camping trips and trips to the Twin Cities.

In response to Anderson's release of the file, Anne Steffens, interim director of communications for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released a list of Heitzer's assignments. Her response with the list said the release of the file was "in the interest of public disclosure and accountability."




Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.