Sex Scandals Send Catholics Back to the Rule Books

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
March 23, 2002

Local Catholic Church officials say they have confidence in their policies amidst a growing national scandal of priestly sexual abuse of minors. Allegations against nearly 50 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston have pressured some other dioceses to purge themselves of sexual offenders and led authorities in West Michigan to review the procedures they have in place.

"It has been a difficult time to realize that some of the people who ought to be the most life-giving have been the most harmful," said the Rev. Tom Page, pastor at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Rockford and associate vicar for the Diocese of Grand Rapids. "You deal with it honestly and look around your own neighborhood and say 'are we ready to make sure this doesn't happen? And if it does, are we ready to respond?' "

The diocese updated its policy on sexual abuse of minors in 1998. It calls for an assessment team -- Vicar General Msgr. Terrence Stewart and the Chancellery office, a therapist, psychologist and attorney -- to evaluate allegations of sexual abuse made against clergy, church staff or parish volunteers. A "well founded" complaint results in administrative leave for the accused as church leaders turn the matter over to civil authorities. The accused is reinstated if diocesan and civil investigations come clean.

Officials review that policy periodically, Page said, and looked at it again in the wake of complaints in Boston. They decided that the policy meets the needs of both the victim and the accused and made no changes, he said.

"We wanted to make sure there weren't any loopholes that needed to be filled," Page said. "The intent is to have a helpful tool to protect minors from any person in a position of power over them."

Officials in Boston have been criticized for moving accused priests from parish to parish after investigations established "well founded" complaints. The Grand Rapids policy, too, allows priests to remain in service if they comply with quarterly checkups that may involve medical and psychological treatment. Accused priests who refuse to cooperate in a monitoring plan risk diocesan dismissal.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese earlier this month forced as many as 12 priests involved in past sexual abuse cases to leave the ministry. But Grand Rapids officials said three priests accused of past sexual abuse will continue to serve.

Keeping accused priests within the diocese protects society by allowing the church to monitor and help them, Page said. It would be irresponsible to kick the priests out prior to rehabilitation, he said.

"Like most dioceses around the country, we're dealing by and large with situations that are over ten years old," he said. "We feel we can protect people better by having some kind of monitoring."

A 1995 lawsuit alleged that the Rev. Joseph W. Kenshol gave a group of adolescent boys full body oil massages in the rectory of Sacred Heart Parish and gave haircuts to parish boys on out-of-town trips.

The diocese made out-of-court settlements in 1989 and 1994 amidst accusations that the Rev. Donald Heydens sexually abused young girls in the early 1970s.

The Rev. Dennis Wagner in 1983 pleaded no contest to assault and battery charges and was placed on two-year probation after he was accused of fondling a 13-year old boy from his congregation at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Coopersville.

The diocese found Kenshol fit for service after an evaluation and assigned him to Mary Queen of Apostles Church in Sand Lake, where he remains pastor. Heydens, the former priest at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, now directs the office of the permanent diaconate. Wagner is a judicial vicar in the tribunal office.

The recent national news has led to confusion, hurt and anxiety among Catholic clergy and laypersons throughout the country, said the Rev. Louis Stasker, pastor of St. Robert Church in Ada. But the church can find confidence in the diocesan policy, he said, which is very clear on how to handle cases in the best interests of both the victim and the accused.

"I think there's a tremendous impact on the average member of the church," Stasker said. "Somehow we have to kneel before God and ask forgiveness for our sins, but also do all we can to build up and support (the people involved)."


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