Priest Resigns over Abuse
The Rev. Daniel Aerts Admits to Sexual Misconduct with a Teen 23 Years Ago While at Holy Spirit and St. Thomas the Apostle Parishes

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
April 29, 2002

As associate vicar in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Rev. Thomas Page's job is to break the painful news to parishioners when a priest gets in trouble.

It is a duty becoming all too familiar.

For the second consecutive Sunday, Page left his home church in Rockford to travel north and tell worshippers another priest was stepping down after admitting to decades-old sexual abuse charges.

"It's definitely a sad job to have to do," Page said after returning to Rockford on Sunday.

"But my stomach isn't churning as much as the priests whom I spend the weekend with."

The Rev. Daniel Aerts, head of parishes in Reed City in Osceola County and Paris in Mecosta County, announced his resignation to parishioners at weekend Masses.

The abuse occurred when Aerts, now 52, was an associate pastor at Holy Spirit and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes in Grand Rapids in 1979, according to a statement from Bishop Robert Rose.

It is the third sexual-abuse allegation involving a priest in the 11-county Grand Rapids diocese to surface this month.

Aerts had "inappropriate sexual conduct with a teen-ager 23 years ago," Rose said in the statement. The male victim now lives out of state.

The announcement echoed that of a week earlier, when a Montcalm County priest, the Rev. Vincent Bryce, 72, admitted to a similar allegation and resigned.

And like the weekend before, local worshippers said they would miss their priest as a beloved leader.

"They were very supportive of (Aerts)," Page said Sunday of worshippers at St. Philip Neri parish in Reed City and St. Anne parish in Paris, where Aerts served since 1995.

After Aerts spoke to worshippers, Page read a statement from Rose and answered parishioners' questions, which he said largely centered on Aerts' welfare.

Although Aerts did not go into details on the charge with parishioners this weekend, he was apologetic about the pain it might cause them, Page said.

"Dan is a very honest and open person, and he was honest with them today," Page said. "They responded very honestly and openly, too.

"He barely got (past) the last pew in church and there were people there waiting to give him a hug and say goodbye."

At the time of the abuse in 1979, Aerts was in transition from Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 2230 Lake Michigan Drive NW, to St. Thomas the Apostle, 1449 Wilcox Park Drive SE.

That is a process that usually takes three to four months and involves part-time work at both places, diocesan spokeswoman Ginny Seyferth said.

He served at Holy Spirit from 1977 to 1979 and at St. Thomas from 1979 to 1982, diocesan records show.

The victim was not a parishioner at either parish, diocesan spokeswoman Mary Haarman said this morning.

Both Holy Spirit and St. Thomas were touched by priest misconduct in the past. The Grand Rapids diocese April 5 acknowledged it paid $500,000 in 1994 to settle a sex-abuse claim against the late Rev. John Thomas Sullivan, a former Holy Spirit priest.

The Rev. Donald Heydens was pastor at St. Thomas in 1993 when he admitted to sexually abusing four girls years earlier at another parish.

Aerts did not return phone calls. Further details of the case could not be released to protect the victim, diocesan staff said Sunday.

Aerts recently received a letter from the victim and immediately forwarded it to the diocese, Haarman said. She did not know if he offered to resign or whether Bishop Robert Rose asked him to.

The priest will undergo a "comprehensive evaluation" to determine whether he is fit to continue in any kind of ministry, Haarman said. Professionals hired by the diocese will evaluate Aerts psychologically, spiritually and physically, she said.

Bishop Rose will review the evaluation and "determine what type of ministry, if any, father could proceed in," Haarman said.

She said Rose will not consider the confirmed allegation as grounds for automatic dismissal. Rose last week announced a zero-tolerance policy for new or recent incidents but said he would respond to charges from decades ago on a case-by-case basis.

This is one of two abuse allegations the diocese has been investigating, Haarman said. She would not disclose details of the second allegation.

Ordained in 1977, Aerts was pastor at St. Michael parish in Remus from 1983 to 1995 before taking the post in Reed City. He also served as associate pastor at St. John Vianney in Wyoming in 1982 and 1983.

In addition to his parish duties, Aerts was dean of the Big Rapids deanery, a group of 11 area churches. Aerts served as a liaison between the churches and the diocese, Haarman said.

On Sunday, there was little reaction from officials at St. Thomas or Holy Spirit parishes. The pastor at Holy Spirit said the incident happened too long ago to justify comment.

"I know Father Dan to be a good person," said the Rev. Leonard Sudlik, Holy Spirit's pastor of seven years, who joined the diocese after the abuse case.

Staff members answering phones at the Reed City and Paris parishes Sunday referred comment to diocesan officials.

In his statement, Bishop Rose said the diocese had no prior knowledge of misconduct by Aerts.

"He has admitted to the allegation, expressed his deep regrets and has said goodbye to the people of the two parishes where he has served since 1995," Rose said in the statement, released late Sunday morning.

"We deeply regret the pain caused to the people of our two parishes by this misconduct committed 23 years ago and by the loss of a pastor who has served them faithfully and well for nearly seven years."

It was unclear whether Aerts would still hold a position in the diocese, Page said.

Aerts will undergo a psychological evaluation, which "would weigh heavily on what happens from there," Page said.

The Rev. Ron Hutchinson, pastor of St. Patrick parish in Parnell, will oversee administrative duties at the Reed City and Paris churches. Hutchinson also will lead Masses next weekend, with future services led by other priests.


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