After the Fall: the Legacies of Grand Rapids" Two Most Notorious Priests

By Ken Kolker
February 14, 2019

ó No matter how many years pass, the memories will not.

The bad ones burn deepest: like what happened more than once in the small log cabin on the Grand Rapids-Walker city line to a 12-year-old girl who thought she was Father John Sullivan's one and only.

Or what she saw through the small second-floor window on the south side of her family's home, the window on the left, as her abuser walked away with his arm around her little sister.

"I knew what he was going to be doing," Fran Heinemann said.

There's the pew in a small country church near Grand Haven where the priest first approached a 14-year-old girl who wanted to be a nun, his latest prey.

The broom closet at Holy Spirit in Grand Rapids.

There's the spot on Campau Lake near Caledonia, about 100 yards out, where a 12-year-old altar boy went swimming with a priest he idolized.

And there's the confessional where the abused went to their abuser for forgiveness of sins they thought were their own.

"I knew it was him because you'd see him walk in there to do confessions," Heinemann said.

The Roman Catholic dioceses in Grand Rapids and across Michigan are bracing for the worst from a state attorney generalís investigation into decades of priest abuse: the possibility that it could uncover more abusive priests, more cover-ups and more survivors than ever before revealed.

The AG started investigating after a grand jury in Pennsylvania revealed that 300 priests had molested 1,000 children since the 1940s. That prompted Target 8 to investigate the legacy of abuse in the Grand Rapids diocese.

Years and even decades after the abuse, survivors in West Michigan are still working through the aftermath: the loss of trust, faith and innocence, and the betrayal by the church they loved.

Target 8 identified 14 priests who molested at least 33 boys and girls in the Grand Rapids diocese since the late 1950s. Five of the abusers are still living in West Michigan, most collecting pensions and health benefits.

"They're so powerful and we were worth nothing. We weren't worth anything," Heinemann said.

Grand Rapids' two most notorious priests abused their victims nearly three decades apart. Father John Thomas Sullivan sexually assaulted young girls in the late 1950s; Father Dennis Wagner molested young boys in the early 1980s. Between the two, they abused as many as 15 children.


Father John Thomas Sullivan was new to Grand Rapids in 1958, welcomed by a diocese that was aware of his scandalous past but short on priests.

"He was very charismatic, big beautiful smile, handsome man, plus he came from the East Coast," Heinemann said. "He was sophisticated and we weren't."

The priest from New Hampshire quickly worked his way into the Viventi family through Holy Spirit church in Grand Rapids.

"They loved him," Heinemann said. "My mother adored him."

Soon, he was living with the Viventis on what was then a farm road in the city of Walker.

"I was 12, many, many years ago," Heinemann said. "I was still playing with dolls. I didn't know what a penis looked like, I didn't know what sex was, nothing.'

She was still 12 when her mom let Sullivan teach her about the birds and the bees at the rectory at St. Jude's. It was his idea.

"I can see the dress I wore. I can see the sidewalk, I can see the rectory, I can see his bedroom," Heinemann said. "It was a pretty little party dress because my mother had me get all dressed up to go see Father Sullivan so we could have our talk."

Her mom, brother and two sisters waited in the car.

"He pulls out this book about sex," Heinemann said. "He was going to teach me all this stuff, and that's the first time.

"'You lay down here, this is what I'm going to do, and this is a deep, dark secret. You can't tell anybody, because if you do, something bad will happen to your parents, something bad will happen to me,' so it would be all my fault."

It was the first of many sexual encounters with her priest that she saw, at first, as love. She thought she was his girlfriend.

He was 41. She was 12.

Not until much later did she realize it was rape.

"It took a long time for me to call it that, because I just laid there, I didn't fight anything," she said. "What was I going to do?"

She said it happened at the rectory, on trips with him to the East Coast, in that old log cabin just down the road from her family home.

"Every chance he got. It seemed to me like every chance he got. His appetite seemed to be insatiable, now that I think about it."

She was about 14, after more than a year of abuse, when she looked toward the field out the upstairs window of her family's home in Walker.

"I see Sullivan with his arm around my little sister, and I knew what he was going to be doing. I don't want to be emotional. I just want to tell you. I thought, 'Oh my God, he's going to hurt my little sister.'

"So I wrote this little note, and I said that unless it stopped, touching, fooling with my sister, I was going to quote-unquote spill the beans, and I put that little note in his prayer book."

The next day, Sullivan was gone.

What she didn't know is that he had already been raping her two sisters, then 11 and 7.

Heinemann's baby sister Mary told Target 8 in an email that Sullivan raped her for the first time when she was 7 at Holy Spirit in Grand Rapids, while her mom was arranging flowers on the altar. It was the spring of her first Holy Communion.

The priest had called her to the broom closet.

"Sullivan told me he needed to check and see if I was growing up properly," Mary Viventi recalled.

"This was the first time Sullivan attacked me. It was fast and painful," she wrote.

She recalls running to the door after a teacher called her name.

"I turned to look at him and I was terrified by his clinched fists and red face. He looked like the devil to me," she wrote.

During one rape, she suffered ruptured discs in her neck.

It wasn't long, the women say, before Sullivan brought another girl to the family home. She was 14, a devout Catholic who attended St. Anthony's, an old farm church near Grand Haven.

"He came to me after church and said how fervently I prayed, and I told him I wanted to be a sister; I wanted to be a nun, and he said, 'Well, I could help you with that,'" the woman, who didn't want to be identified, told Target 8.

He asked her to help count the Sunday offerings at the rectory at nearby St. Patrick's, where he raped her, she said.

It was the first of the attacks, "at least a dozen," that went on for a year, she said.

She took what she believed were her sins to the confessional, to Sullivan, the man who was raping her.

"I am heartily sorry for having offended you," she recalled saying.

"I thought I was in a state of mortal sin and couldn't go to communion anymore. That's why I went to confession," she said. "And he said I had nothing to forgive, I didn't do anything wrong and that I could go to communion."

About 35 years ago, she confessed to a priest in another parish, who sent her to the Grand Rapids diocese for therapy.

She quit after six sessions because the therapist, she says, kept asking the same question.

"She asked me, 'Well, was he good-looking?'" she said.

She later seriously considered driving into a bayou, then ended up at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

She hasn't heard from the diocese in decades.

"I just try and put it out of my mind, I just go on because I love my church," she said.

She's 73 now, still Catholic, and goes to the same church where it happened, where nobody knows her story. Most of her children didn't know; her husband of 50 years knew few details until she sat down with Target 8 at their dining room table just before Christmas.

She was still blaming herself.

"That's part of it. I was old enough to know that what he was doing was wrong," she said.

But she was only 14.

"I know. I know that."

The next day, she left Target 8 a voicemail.

"You were here on Tuesday evening and interviewed me," she said. "I just wanted to call and let you know that I think I had a Christmas miracle because the next morning when I woke up, I was so calm. I was just so calm and happy."

"I think you were my Christmas miracle," she said in a follow-up interview. "God sent you to me because for how many years I prayed, 'Please, God take this guilt away.'"


On a recent winter day, Chris Burri returned to Campau Lake, where he was raped by a priest more than 30 years ago.

"It definitely brings back a lot of memories," he said.

To the summer of 1985.

"Nothing, nothing was ever the same," he said. "Yeah, I lost a lot of my childhood here."

Burri was a 12-year-old altar boy at Holy Family in Caledonia.

"We were out on a pontoon boat probably a good 100 yards, 200 yards out in the water," he said.

He idolized his priests, Donald Heydens and Dennis Wagner, and wanted to become one himself.

"That's all I wanted to be," he said. "I remember playing Mass at home and practicing. It was a big honor for me to be an altar server."

Wagner, then 38, had become a family friend. He watched the Detroit Tigers on their TV. He ate popcorn with them on their back porch.

"Very engaging. Very likeable. You enjoyed being around him," Burri said.

On that summer day, he went swimming with friends, joined by Father Denny. Far from everybody else, the view blocked by the pontoon boat, the priest grabbed Chris from behind.

"I tried and struggled and struggled to get away from him," he said.

He struggles to say what the priest did: raped him.

The attack, he said, lasted half an hour.

"He just laughed," he said.

The young altar boy broke free, swam to shore and ran home in his bathing suit and bare feet.

"I ran probably a good mile or better east and away from the lake, and back to my childhood home and literally locked myself in our camper," he said.

That's where he curled up the rest of the day, and cried.

He said he would have quit the church back then, if not for playing guitar in the church band.

By the late 1980s, Wagner was gone from Holy Family and Burri was in high school.

Burri recalls walking into Holy Family with his guitar for a Saturday night Mass, and seeing paramedics pushing Wagner out on a gurney. He had no idea his molester was filling in that night. Wagner had fallen and hurt himself in church.

"Instantly, he locked eyes on mine and he reached out and he grabbed my hand and forearm very forcefully and would not let go and just stared. It was a very dark stare."

Burri came forward in the early 1990s, just beyond the statute of limitations for criminal charges. He first got 10 therapy sessions through the diocese, then $10,000 after telling the church he needed more help.

"They told me that I was the only one," he said.

Then, he said, he learned he was one of at least six victims of the priest he once idolized "and this was a larger cover-up on the church's part."

In fact, two years before Wagner raped Burri, the priest was accused of repeatedly molesting a 13-year-old boy on a tubing trip in Muskegon County. He was serving at St. Michael's in Coopersville.

"All this could have easily been prevented, a lifetime of heartache and pain," Burri said.

Wagner listed 600 Burton St. SE in Grand Rapids as his address, the location of the diocese at the time. A felony gross indecency charge turned into simple assault, and instead of sending him to jail, the judge thanked the priest for his service.

"While I don't believe there should be special exceptions to our criminal law for the clergy, I do think we have to take into consideration a person's background, and I generally admire those who are willing to assume certain disciplines in a life of service," Muskegon County Circuit Judge James Graves said.

Burri also learned later that the diocese had sent Wagner to Holy Family in Caledonia so Father Heydens could supervise him. (Years later, Heydens was forced into retirement for molesting four girls in the 1970s at another church.)

"There was no monitoring of him whatsoever," Burri said. "We did not see any of that taking place. He (Wagner) had full reign of the facility, activities."

Burri pushed the diocese for more therapy money and got $50,000.

Wagner is 70 now, defrocked from the church, living on a quiet dead-end street in Norton Shores, where neighbors didn't know of his past.

Burri is married with a young daughter. He sells medical devices and owns a medical consulting company. He still sees a therapist, though the church money ran out long ago.

"I'm 45 years old and I still struggle at the hands of the church and from what he had done," he said. "This is a lifelong battle. It sticks with you."

On a recent airplane flight, the movie "Spotlight" about priest abuse in Boston, played on the back of the seat in front of him. At the end, the list of cities with reported abuse started scrolling on the screen. Among them was Grand Rapids. Burri melted into his seat and cried.

"An overwhelming feeling of almost a panic," he said. "It sends you spiraling. It sends you down into a dark space, a depression, just an overwhelming sadness that is really difficult to dig yourself out of."

He's still drawn to the Catholic Church, but prefers talking with God in a Buddhist temple or while fly-fishing.

He said he hasn't heard from the Grand Rapids diocese since he reported the abuse in the early 1990s.

"Never since then, proactively, has the church come and said, 'How are you doing?'" he said.

Last year, Burri found himself wandering into the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence, Rhode Island, during a work trip.

"Sat in the pew and just wept," he said.

A young priest approached and Burri went to confession for the first time since the attack. He told the priest what happened.

"And for the first time ever did I feel compassion from somebody within the church, of that leadership, of that role, and he had put his hand on my shoulder and respectfully, compassionately just simply said, 'I apologize, I am so sorry, and I am embarrassed for what has happened to you at the hands of the church.'

"I melted. I broke down. I cried. He gave me a hug and I wasn't afraid."


The Diocese of Grand Rapids refused to set up an interview with Bishop David Walkowiak, citing the ongoing AG's investigation, so Target 8 caught up with him after a recent mass.

The bishop defended the church, saying sweeping changes in 2002 are doing more to protect children.

"The church is a lot different than it was," Walkowiak said.

He said he wasn't familiar with some of the Grand Rapids cases.

"I don't even know the years that Father Sullivan was a priest. I am from the Cleveland diocese," Walkowiak, who was named the head of the Diocese of Grand Rapids in 2013, said.

"We are always keeping the survivors in mind and praying for them, and we offer them any help that they need," he said.


Not a lot has changed around the old Viventi home in Walker, where West Michigan's most notorious priest once lived.

In the family's front yard still stands the stone grotto protecting the Virgin Mary, built by Romeo Viventi at the request of Father Sullivan, the priest who secretly had stolen his three young daughters' virginity.


The Virgin Mary grotto outside the old Viventi family home in Walker.

The priest had also given the three girls STDs.

"What's ongoing is just this deep, deep sadness that it happened to my sisters," said Fran Heinemann, the oldest sister who was raped repeatedly by Sullivan for at least a year.

The three sisters raped when they were 12, 11 and 7 didn't start talking with each other about it until they were in their 30s.

"I get emotional when I think about that priest and his power and how it was all fake," Heinemann said. "You know because that same guy who was holding the host and the wine, almost like in a trance and saying he was turning it into the body and blood of Christ, he was the same one who was molesting you, assaulting you and your sisters."

Their parents, Santina and Romeo Viventi, never knew. The sisters kept the secret until their parents died within 10 months of each other in 1990 and 1991, then sued the diocese.

That's before they learned about Sullivan's scandalous past before moving to Grand Rapids.

He got a young girl pregnant while a priest in New Hampshire and paid for an abortion that didn't work before his son was born Oct. 27, 1949, at 2 pounds, 4 ounces.

"The baby is thought to resemble the father strongly," according to a written report.

Sullivan's son, later adopted by a young couple, would be 69 now.

Later, while still a priest in New Hampshire, Sullivan stalked a nursing student and had what was described as an affair with a high school girl.

"People living near the parish cemetery have frequently seen Father Sullivan parked in the cemetery in his car with young women at night," one report stated.

The New Hampshire diocese suspended him, then warned bishops in Grand Rapids and across the country after the priest started shopping himself around.

"I feel that every inquiring Bishop should know some of the circumstances that range from parenthood Ö attempted suicide and abortion," the warning read.

But the Grand Rapids diocese took a chance in 1958.

"Because of dire need for priests and because Father Sullivan had been recommended by a priest with whom he had been living for over a year, I gave him an opportunity of rehabilitating himself," then-Grand Rapids Bishop Allen J. Babcock wrote in documents released by the state of New Hampshire.

Within a year and a half, after molesting as many as nine girls in West Michigan, Sullivan moved out west to molest more girls.

The Grand Rapids diocese called him a "psychopath."

"I had hoped that we could help rehabilitate yourself but maybe the mentality of priests in the Midwest is different from that of priests back east," the Grand Rapids bishop wrote to Sullivan.

In their lawsuit against the diocese, the Viventi sisters wanted more than $1 million but settled for $500,000 in 1994.

"It was neat to have some money and stuff like that, but there was no satisfaction," Heinemann said. "Did this help wipe away anything? No, not at all."

Sullivan died a priest in 1999 and was buried in Arizona. He was never criminally charged. His gravestone shows an image of the holy family and reads, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit."

Today, more than 60 years after they were abused, Fran Heinemann is 73, living alone in central Florida. She's a visiting psych nurse. Her sisters are also in the field of mental health.

"I've been in and out of therapy, trying to figure it all out, like how did it affect me?" Heinemann said. "There was always this sense that my only value in life is if somebody saw me as a sexual being, somebody that's desirable. That was one thing. Issues with intimacy."

They have never returned to the Catholic Church.

What would Heinemann say now to the little girl whose innocence, faith and trust were stolen by her priest?

"That you matter. That you're valuable, that you have value, that you matter. That you're somebody's princess. That it was not my fault. That I couldn't have done anything more to save them (her sisters)."


There is an epilogue to Father John Sullivan's story, playing out in Miami through the son of one of the priest's survivors.

Heinemann's son, Charles, said he learned years ago about what the priest did to his mom and his aunts.

"Any reasonable person knows that this has been and is an ongoing huge miscarriage of justice," Charles Heinemann said.

He is now an assistant state's attorney in Miami-Dade County, doing the kind of work most DAs would rather avoid: prosecuting child molestation cases.

"They're pretty cool, innocent kids that you see just not getting a shot in this world," he said. "It just sucks. It really does."

His mom said she believes he's trying to fix things.

"I think so, but I don't know if he knows that," she said.

While he won't go that far, her son says what happened to his mom and aunts has prepared him better for the job.

"When the opportunity came up for me to do what I'm doing, I think I was better equipped because I do understand these issues; I understand that they're prevalent and I'm not shocked by them," he said.

"I understood it, like, OK, these things go on. Monsters are out there."

Anyone who has been victimized by a member of the Catholic church can confidentially report it to the Michigan Attorney Generalís Office online or by calling 844.324.3374 during regular business hours. The state also has a hotline for all victims of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374).








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