Mistakes Made in Handling of Hesch Sex Case, Official Says Priest Shot Himself Just Hours after Meeting with Bishop
By Mark Holmberg
July 30, 1994
An official from the Catholic Diocese of Richmond acknowledges that mistakes were made in the case of the late Rev. John Hesch, a priest who committed suicide after being accused of molesting boys.
The Rev. Robert F. Perkins, who attended a meeting at St. Augustine Catholic Church Thursday night to discuss the Hesch controversy, said allegations about Hesch's conduct that surfaced in 1985 did not get the attention they deserved.
"Yes, I will acknowledge that," said Perkins, who was representing Bishop Walter F. Sullivan and was part of a 1986 investigation into Hesch's conduct. "For my part, if I had to do it over again, I'd do it differently."
Hesch, 37, shot himself on June 5 within hours of being confronted with sexual misconduct allegations by Bishop Sullivan.
Hesch denied the allegations in his suicide notes and his conversation with Bishop Sullivan.
Thursday night's meeting was called at the Chesterfield County church to share information about the case and how church officials had dealt with it.
The group of about 65 people also discussed how the stunned parish could heal itself after Hesch's death and the April 24 suicide of a 21-year-old man who allegedly was victimized by Hesch a decade ago.
"The church did not do enough," said Jacqueline M. Mishkel, who was a parochial school teacher at Sacred Heart-St. Augustine when Hesch taught religion and sex education there in 1985. "Not enough for the boys, not enough for John."
Mishkel said she went to the school's principal in 1985 after she heard complaints about Hesch from the students. She said nothing was done at that level, so she went to church leaders.
"I was such a good Catholic," she said, sobbing. "I couldn't go to the authorities. All of this could have been stopped if someone stepped in."
Mary Beth Gorman, a parishioner, asked why police weren't called in to investigate the allegations.
In 1985, Hesch was preparing to move to a parish in Virginia Beach, Perkins said. Perkins was in the process of becoming the diocese's vicar for priests. In the midst of the shuffling and Hesch's vehement denials, Perkins said, the Hesch case did not get the followup attention it needed.
But church leaders did assign Hesch to receive counseling, Perkins said, and Hesch had 13 or more sessions with a therapist during the mid-'80s.
Then Hesch transferred to St. Nicholas in Virginia Beach, where he was associate pastor. Two years later, he was reassigned to Sacred Heart Church 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 Church in Henrico County.
"The perception that this was brushed under the rug and he was sent to another parish has to be changed," said one parishioner who did not want to be identified by name.
This week's meeting was directed by Father Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist and priest with the Saint Luke Institute in Maryland; and pastoral counselor Dr. Rene Molenkamp.
Amid the complaints and concerns, a 19-year-old man walked to the front of the room and defended his former teacher.
"Father John Hesch was a very close friend of my family," said the young man, who did not give his name and left the meeting as soon as he finished his statement. "We went to the pool, sailing. He was in my room many times.
Father John Hesch was a second father to me. He was very loving. He'd kiss me; he'd kiss me in front of my mom. But he never laid a finger on me. No one has spoken out to defend Father John."
Gail Loub stood up and remembered being called into Sacred Heart-St. Augustine School for a meeting with a priest and teachers nearly a decade ago.
"They told me my son and other children were spreading vicious rumors about Father John. I was humiliated my son was saying things about a man doing the work of God."
She recalled going home and confronting her son. "He wouldn't talk to me. He just said 'I just don't like him.' "
Now she and another mother whose son spent many hours alone with Hesch are angry that they didn't know that Hesch was being investigated.
Perkins said to those at the meeting, "I'm concerned for the abused, the abuser, the families . . . the church and the credibility of the priesthood in general. The pain has been deep."
Perkins said psychological testing and other screening procedures are now in place for those entering a seminary. And he said future allegations will be handled by one person in charge of a team that will stay on the case from start to finish.
Molenkamp said priests accused of sexual misconduct make the news because they are supposed to be trusted authority figures. "Statistically, priests don't offend more than nonpriests," he said.
Jeff Beatman, a Chesterfield County school principal, said priests and other clergy -- like teachers -- should be careful about being in closed rooms alone with students and other potentially compromising situations.
But several people present said concern over pedophilia could undermine important relationships between priests and young parishoners.
"I would like our children and grandchildren to be able to hug a priest," Mary Jo Dodson said. "I don't want to lose that. If we put everybody in a bubble, we're going to lose something."
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