Priest Shot Self after Sex Abuse Allegations Bishop Sullivan Had Confronted Him on Reports Hours before

Richmond Times-Dispatch
July 13, 1994

Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond yesterday confirmed that allegations of sexual abuse of children had been made against a priest who committed suicide June 5.

The Rev. John Hesch, 37, who had just received his doctorate in canon law from Catholic University in Washington, shot himself within hours of being confronted with the allegations by the bishop.

Sullivan said Hesch denied the allegations, both during their talk and in suicide notes left to Sullivan and to Hesch's mother.

Diocesan sources said the bishop's investigation began after the April 24 suicide of a 21-year-old member of St. Augustine Catholic Church. The sources said that when the man's parents asked that Hesch not participate in their son's funeral Mass the bishop asked why, then started his inquiry.

The sources said that Hesch was accused of sexually abusing the man a decade ago.

When Sullivan confronted Hesch about the accusation, he also brought up allegations that had surfaced against Hesch in 1985 at a South Richmond parochial school where he taught sex education for upper level elementary pupils.

Two former teachers at Sacred Heart-St. Augustine School in South Richmond said yesterday they told the diocese in 1985 that parents and pupils were complaining about Hesch's physical handling of the children. In one case, they said, he invited a boy to sit on his lap while he had an erection.

Hesch's suicide the night of June 5 came 16 days after that of a high- ranking diocesan official, Gerry Van Ostern, who was a friend of Hesch.

Van Ostern's widow, Jane, yesterday said her husband had been sexually abused by priests when he was a seminarian. Van Ostern, 46, was head of the diocesan Office of Christian Formation in Richmond.

Sullivan said he doesn't believe the Van Ostern and Hesch suicides are related. He said that he didn't know about Van Ostern's claim to have been sexually abused as a seminarian.

He said his investigation of Hesch is continuing.

"Currently, I am inquiring at the parishes where Father Hesch was assigned . . . to determine if there are any parishioners who need counseling in light of these developments," Sullivan said.

Hesch was at St. Augustine's, 4400 Beulah Road, from 1982 until his reassignment in 1985 to St. Nicholas in Virginia Beach, where he was associate pastor. Two years later, he was reassigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Big Stone Gap as pastor.

In 1991, he went to Catholic University and was assigned to weekend resident duties at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Henrico County.

The former parochial teachers, Sara Metz and Jacqueline M. Mishkel, said the church turned a deaf ear to their complaints about Hesch nine years ago.

Metz and Mishkel said the reports of abuses at Sacred Heart-St. Augustine included Hesch rubbing boys' naked bodies with powder during an outing at the local YMCA and taking a male sex education class into a darkened library to feel his erect penis.

Metz, who teaches at John Tyler Community College, has written a fictionalized account of what occurred and subsequent reaction by the church, "Parochial Panic," and is looking for a publisher.

Now an Episcopalian, Metz said it was part of her self-prescribed therapy to work out unresolved emotions over how victimized children might have fared.

Mishkel, a New Kent County middle school teacher, is still a Catholic, but said, "It's harder and harder for the priest to preach to me. I'll stay away from church, feel guilty about it, then go back."

The two said they informed school officials, then the diocese when children complained to them about Hesch's behavior. At one point, Metz said, she also called the Richmond Department of Social Services, but was told that "the diocese would handle it."

Eventually, Metz said, Hesch was put into counseling, but returned at the end of the year. He then was transferred to St. Nicholas in Virginia Beach.

Mishkel said yesterday Hesch went to a counselor "only two or three times. That's not enough to change a person's behavior."

According to Jane Van Ostern, Hesch once told her he was a homosexual.

"But that didn't bother me." She said Hesch was the couple's friend and attended her husband's funeral.

She said her husband, a native of Canada, tried to escape a bad home life and an abusive father by going to a high school seminary. He next entered a major seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he said he "was abused sexually by priests."

"He told me he did not want any of the Vancouver priests at his funeral."

She said Hesch was supportive as Van Ostern's mental state began to deteriorate, and he became suicidal, then homicidal. She said she ultimately swore out a warrant against her husband to get him into a psychiatric hospital.

After the suicide, Hesch attended Van Ostern's funeral and wrote in the register, "At the end of darkness there is only light."

Not long afterward Hesch was confronted by Sullivan with the allegations against him.

"He denied it to me. He also denied it again (in) his (suicide) notes to me and to his mother," Sullivan said.


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