'Teacher of Year' Quits, Lied about Felony

By Stephanie Desmon and Dan Moffett
Palm Beach Post
December 24, 1998

On Friday, the day he was to receive teacher of the year honors at Palm Beach Community College, a horticulture instructor resigned after officials learned he lied on his job application about being a convicted child molester.

Walter M. Weerts, 63, a former Catholic priest, was sentenced to six years in an Illinois state prison in 1986 after pleading guilty to three counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving boys between the ages of 12 and 16.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is investigating Weerts after receiving a complaint that a young boy from New Mexico, who was staying at Weerts' home, might have been abused, sheriff's Sgt. Jim Stormes said Wednesday.

The boy has returned home, and charges are unlikely because an interview the boy had with New Mexico authorities turned up no evidence of a crime, Stormes said.

Weerts, who taught at the Palm Beach Gardens campus, could not be reached for comment. College officials said they believe he has left the state.

As part of his PBCC duties, Weerts, a suburban Palm Beach Gardens resident, also taught a college-level class to students at Jupiter High School. The district normally conducts background checks on all employees, but relied on PBCC in this case because Weerts was a college employee.

"The district does not employ individuals with criminal backgrounds," said spokesman Nat Harrington.

Until now, the community college has not performed background checks on its employees, accepting what is written on notarized applications, said PBCC spokesman Robert Cole.

"Since this has occurred, we are putting that mechanism in place to do that (background checks)," Cole said. All employees - present and future - will likely face scrutiny, he said.

School district offices are closed this week, and officials on Wednesday couldn't say how many students were in Weerts' horticulture class, how often it met or how many other classes attended by high school students are taught by community college instructors.

The faculty had chosen Weerts to receive the 1998 Teacher of Excellence Award for the Eissey campus, which was to have been awarded at Friday's graduation ceremonies, Cole said.

Weerts had been at PBCC since 1993. Colleagues said he got his students enthusiastic about horticulture.

Charlie McDaniel, a teacher at Bear Lakes Middle School in West Palm Beach, knew Weerts and allowed him to speak to Bear Lakes students about the college's program on two occasions.

"I thought he was a very innovative and serious teacher," McDaniel said.

Charges against Weerts surfaced in September 1985 in Liberty, Ill., where he had been Father Weerts at St. Brigid and St. Thomas churches for five years.

In March 1986, he pleaded guilty to three sexual abuse charges as part of a negotiation with prosecutors, court documents show. Two other counts were dropped, they show.

Circuit Judge Edward Dittmeyer sentenced Weerts to six years in prison, denying prosecutors' requests for the maximum seven years under Illinois law.

Weerts served three years at Vienna Correctional Center, a minimum security facility in the southern tip of the state.

"The courtroom at the sentencing was full of nuns and priests," Thomas Leeper, the former state attorney who prosecuted the case, said Wednesday. "The defense raised objections to every detail I presented. I'll never forget the atmosphere in that room."

Leeper said he submitted a 225-page report prepared by investigators that concluded Weerts had been sexually involved with boys for as long as 18 years and that church officials knew of his problem but repeatedly reassigned him to other parishes.

But according to court records, Weerts told the judge: "I cared for them and was good to them. I loved those boys."

The three boys, at least one of whom was an altar boy, filed a civil suit against the Diocese of Springfield and won a seven-figure settlement before the civil case went to trial, said their attorney, Stephen Tillery of Bellville, Ill.

"It was a very substantial settlement that by order cannot be disclosed," Tillery said. "The destruction this man caused was horrible. One of the three boys is damaged beyond repair. The toll on the families was devastating."

Weerts won the trust of the parents and took their boys into his home for overnight visits during which he had sexual contact with them, Tillery said.

"It was the ultimate betrayal," Tillery said. "Lives were shattered."

The diocese assigned Weerts for rehabilitative treatment at a facility for pedophile priests in Jemez Springs, N.M., upon learning of the charges against him. The Rev. Michael Edward Foley, an administrator with the Servants of the Paraclete monastery retreat, testified that Weerts had been successfully treated and was no longer a danger to society.

During the 1970s and '80s, the church sent dozens of sexual offenders to Jemez Springs, then reassigned them to rural parishes throughout New Mexico, where many of the offenders claimed new victims. The Santa Fe Diocese was nearly bankrupted by the 200 civil suits and $ 50 million in settlements that followed.

"It's outrageous that Weerts would ever be able to work with children again," Tillery said.


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