'Credible accusations' led to removal of priest, archdiocese says

By Carla Hinton And Randy Ellis
August 23, 2018

In this Sept. 24, 2015, file photo a member of the clergy prays the rosary as he waits for Pope Francis to arrive at St. Patrick's Cathedral for evening prayer service in New York.
Photo by Mary Altaffer

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City said Wednesday that it removed a priest from duty in 2002 after receiving what it determined as "credible accusations of abuse" against him.

Benjamin Zoeller was removed as a priest in 2002 and Pope Benedict XVI formally stripped him of his priestly rights and authority in 2011 through a process called laicization, an archdiocese spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The archdiocese released a statement about Zoeller on Wednesday in response to an Aug. 17 letter from a 49-year-old former Oklahoman who said he was 16 and a member of the clergyman's Oklahoma City parish when he was sexually abused by the then-priest in 1985.

Zoeller was never charged with sexual abuse related to the incident.

The alleged victim said he was prompted to write the letter after the recent release of a highly disturbing grand jury report alleging abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. The man, who now lives in Minnesota, is not being identified because of The Oklahoman's policy not to name victims of sex crimes.

The man said he was dismayed by the years-long cover-up of abuse that the Pennsylvania report shared in detail and he was prompted to reach out to the Oklahoma City archdiocese to see if anyone had ever reported Zoeller to law enforcement authorities.

"Who knew what when and what did they do about it?" he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

"I guess at this point I would want to know everyone in the hierarchy that knew about Zoeller that's still active within the Church. If they knew the actions that he took and, if so, what did they do? And if they did nothing, why not? I think I'm more focused now on obviously making sure that he's not in a position to do that to anyone else and that every individual who was covering for him, if they can't be criminally prosecuted, they should be outed. These are the people, like the Pennsylvania report, these are the people who could have done something but didn't."

The man said his own allegations of abuse were reported to the Oklahoma City archdiocese by his brother about 10 years ago and that was when he learned that Zoeller was no longer a priest.

He said he gathered the courage to tell his siblings about the abuse about a decade ago and his brother contacted the Oklahoma City archdiocese.

"It's something that you're embarrassed about and you kind of blame yourself and you just don't feel comfortable talking about it," he said.

He said the Minnesota victim assistance coordinator that he was referred to tried to make him feel that the abuse never happened and repeatedly questioned why he never told his parents about it. He said he was also told that the Minnesota diocese would have to approve the counselor he sought and that it would be fruitless to report the incident to law enforcement because of the statute of limitations.

Wednesday, Diane Clay, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City archdiocese, said Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley ordered a review of Zoeller's file after receiving the man's letter.

She said according to the file, the brother of the alleged victim reported Zoeller's abuse in 2006. He was referred to the Minnesota vicar general and a victim assistance coordinator. Clay said the file indicated that the vicar general also provided information that could be used to contact a detective in the Oklahoma City Police Department's sex crimes division.

She said the file also said the man's brother talked by telephone with then-Archbishop Eusebius Beltran, who apologized for the crimes allegedly committed by Zoeller and offered to fund counseling in his brother's current state of residence, if desired.

Clay said Zoeller served several parishes in Oklahoma beginning in 1968, including (in order): St. Mary, Tulsa; St. Joseph, Norman; St. Rose of Lima, Watonga; Our Lady's Cathedral, Oklahoma City; St. Andrew, Moore; St. Eugene, Weatherford; St. Patrick, Oklahoma City; and St. John Nepomuk, Yukon.

In reviewing the length of time between the 2002 removal of Zoeller as a priest and the allegations made against him in 2006 by the former Oklahoman, it appears there was at least one other credible accusation against the former clergyman which led to his removal from the priesthood.

Wednesday, Clay said she could not discuss specifics regarding the "credible accusations" made against Zoeller that led to his removal from the priesthood. She said Coakley has asked for an independent investigation of Zoeller's file and that process is ongoing. The Oklahoman attempted to reach Zoeller on Wednesday through a social media account but was unsuccessful.

Also Wednesday, the former Oklahoman who wrote to the archdiocese said he is seeking accountability from the religious faith group. He said Zoeller "jumped between three parishes in two years" and he is curious whether those moves were prompted by an attempt to keep any accusations against him from becoming public.

Clay said she was unsure Wednesday what prompted Zoeller's transfers but further investigation might add clarity to the matter.

The former Oklahoman said he wants to see Zoeller added to sexual predator databases and he wanted to add his own name to any list of alleged victims being investigated by the archdiocese.

The man sent his letter regarding alleged sexual abuse to The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Attorney General's office, Oklahoma County District Attorney's office, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' Oklahoma Sex & Violent Offender Registry and several victims' advocacy groups. Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike Hunter said his office had received the letter and was reviewing the matter.

Meanwhile, the advocacy group Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, encouraged survivors and supporters around the country Wednesday to urge attorneys general in their states to follow Pennsylvania's lead and launch formal investigations into how bishops have dealt with victims and "predator priests."

"These probes protect kids by exposing those who commit and conceal abuse. They help victims heal and make institutions safer. And they deter similar reckless and callous behavior in the future," Tim Lennon, SNAP's president, said in a news release.

Under Oklahoma law, all individuals must report incidents or suspicions of sexual abuse of a minor (person under age 18) to law enforcement authorities.

The local archdiocese said victims of abuse, past or present, also can report abuse to church officials by contacting the Abuse of Minors Pastoral Response Hotline at 405-720-9878. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has established a statewide abuse reporting hotline at 800-522-3511.

Reporting abuse to the archdiocese does not relieve a person of the duty to report child abuse to civil authorities as required by state law, the archdiocese noted.


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