Richmond Diocese Rocked by Scandal
Suicides Prompt Scrutiny of Dead Priest
By Peter Baker
July 14, 1994
His death was tragic and, to some, mystifying. A 21-year-old parishioner at St. Augustine Catholic Church had killed himself at his parents' home. But then his parents made an odd request of church leaders: Could they keep the Rev. John Hesch from participating in the funeral Mass?
Nearly three months later, Hesch too is dead of a self-inflicted bullet wound, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond is investigating allegations of sexual abuse and, once again, the church finds itself buffeted by scandal.
The suicides and disturbing allegations about Hesch have prompted much soul-searching in the Catholic community here -- in part because two former parochial school teachers say they warned church officials of Hesch's inappropriate contact with young boys nearly a decade ago.
"They told us they had confronted him back then," recalled Jacqueline M. Mishkel, who said she reported the priest in 1985. "They told us they were going to send him to counseling. They told me it was going to be taken care of and it wasn't. Everybody was hurt by this."
As the Roman Catholic Church continues to struggle with the issue of priests and pedophilia, the Hesch case is a singularly troubling episode.
According to church sources, the unusual request by the young suicide victim's parents brought a diocesan investigation into allegations that Hesch had sexually abused the man in the mid-1980s.
After the priest returned from a European vacation on June 2, the sources said, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan confronted him. Within hours, Hesch had killed himself in his home, which is owned by the church.
Near his body were several notes that proclaimed his innocence. They were addressed to Sullivan, Hesch's mother and his fellow priests.
In a statement this week, Sullivan confirmed that accusations had been made and that an investigation had begun. "Father Hesch categorically denied these allegations," Sullivan said, "both to me personally and in notes left at the time of his death."
Among the allegations raised by Mishkel and another teacher were that Hesch had engaged in intimate physical contact with grade-school boys at the Sacred Heart-St. Augustine School. According to students, Mishkel said, Hesch once rubbed powder onto the naked bodies of several boys after a field trip, telling them it was so their skin wouldn't chafe. Another time, she said, boys complained that Hesch had students in his all-male sex education class feel his penis as part of a lesson.
The bishop said the inquiry is continuing and would include the various parishes where Hesch previously had been assigned.
Detective Allan J. Reid, who responded to the house the night Hesch's body was found, said that the Richmond Police Department was not aware of the allegations then and, because the priest's death was ruled a suicide, is not investigating them. "The case is closed as far as we're concerned," he said.
It's anything but closed, however, for the Catholic community.
"I tell you, we were all shocked by it," said Bob Edwards, the diocese's communications director, who had known Hesch for years. "It's been hard on everyone down here at the diocese. All of them knew John. He was highly thought of."
A Richmond native, Hesch, 37, was ordained in 1982 and became an assistant pastor at St. Augustine. In 1986, he was transferred to a church in Virginia Beach and then the next year to a parish in Big Stone Gap, in Southwest Virginia. He recently completed his doctorate in canon law at Catholic University in Washington.
The day after his death, he was to begin work as one of five full-time members of the tribunal that oversees marriages, annulments and divorces in the diocese, which covers Virginia south of Fredericksburg.
To Jacqueline Mishkel, the Hesch case leaves feelings of guilt and doubt about her church.
The boys who came to her in 1985 when she taught at Sacred Heart-St. Augustine were genuinely troubled and quite believable, she said. They didn't just blurt out accusations. They simply asked not to be left in his care. Only after much coaxing, she said, did they talk about what he had done with them.
"I had been a Catholic all my life," she said. "I didn't think that priests did that."
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