Five former Belleville Oblate priests “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors

By George Pawlaczyk
Belleville News-Democrat
July 8, 2015

[with video]

Seven former priests, including five who once had ties to the religious order that operates the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows near Belleville, have been publicly named in Minnesota as “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors, according to a written statement from the national Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

“Credibly accused” is the standard language used by the Catholic Church to describe a member of the clergy who, after an investigation by a diocese or religious order, is believed to have molested a minor and is unfit for further ministry.

Release of the names was part of a settlement in a Minnesota lawsuit in connection to a former priest — the late J. Vincent Fitzgerald — in which the defendants agreed to “public disclosure” of the names of all Oblate priests in the United States “against whom there has ever been a credible accusation of sexual abuse of a minor or possession of child pornography.” The lawsuit’s defendants were The Diocese of Duluth, the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn., and the Oblates. Other details of the settlement, such as monetary damages, were not released.

“The release of the names is as a result of the genesis of the Father Fitzgerald litigation,” said Patrick Wall, a paralegal with the Jeff Anderson & Associates law firm in St. Paul, which brought the legal action. Fitzgerald, who formerly was assigned to the Oblates in Belleville, had been accused in civil court of sexually molesting a number of young boys in several states, including on an Indian reservation.

Only two of the former priests are alive, including Michael Charland, 70, a former administrator at the now defunct St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville. Today, he works as a licensed psychologist in Minnesota, according to Jeff Anderson, the founding lawyer of the St. Paul law firm that brought the court action.

Charland could not be reached for comment. His online biography states that he is a former Oblate priest and once served in Belleville. Charland formerly counseled teenagers in Belleville and at a youth program in Sparta — Teens Encounter Christ Program — in the late ’70s.

The other living priest is Robert Reitmeier, who has no known ties to Belleville. According to the official statement from the Oblates, Reitmeier is no longer a priest and worked as a parochial and public school teacher in Chicago from 1991-1997.

Neither Charland nor Reitmeier were charged criminally.

“It’s crucial that Belleville diocesan officials and Oblate officials warn families” about these former priests, said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, based in St. Louis. “It’s not enough to disclose their names and crimes under legal pressure. Catholic officials have a moral and civic duty to help police and prosecutors pursue these predators and to help their victims recover.”

The other priests, all deceased, who once had a connection to the Oblates in Belleville, are:

▪ James V. Fitzgerald, who died in 2009.

▪ Paul Kabat, who died in 1999.

▪ Orville Lawrence Munie, who died in 1993.

▪ Emil Twardochleb, who died in 1976.

Thomas Meyer, who also had no connection to the Belleville Oblates, died in 2013.

During a press conference Tuesday at Anderson’s law firm in St. Paul, Minn., Joe McLean identified himself as a sexual abuse victim of Charland’s, who left the priesthood in 1989. McLean is the plaintiff in a lawsuit that has been filed in Minnesota against Charland. The suit is pending.

“We know now that Mike Charland is out there and this really did happen,” McLean said. He was accompanied by his wife, Colleen. The press conference was live streamed on the Internet.

“For a long time, you feel that no one believes you about this,” he said, adding that after he learned today that the Oblates had officially identified Charland and the others, McLean said, “It’s a good day. When Jeff made the call, it was like a thunderbolt.”

In March, a Minnesota judge ordered the Oblates to turn over all documents relating to sexual abuse of minors as part of the Fitzgerald case. The seven names are part of those documents. The court file remains sealed, but the Anderson law firm released “assignment timelines” for the seven priests.

Anderson said the Oblates have kept the alleged abuse “secret for years.” He described the abuse that is alleged in various court documents that he said will be eventually released by his firm as a “Legacy of Horror.”

The Oblates released a statement that said, in part, “The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate are sincerely sorry for the suffering and loss that (victims) have lived with for many years because of the abuse they experienced. They remain in our prayers. ...”

None of the seven priests named Monday were among the 15 priests exposed by the Belleville News-Democrat in the early 1990s who were subsequently removed from their ministries by the Belleville Diocese, largely based on allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests in the 1970s. No criminal charges were ever filed in any of those cases.

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