Files on Priests Will Go to Tague, Forsyth
The Decision to Make the Records Available to Prosecutors Comes As Another Priest Is Suspended Because of Accusations of Misconduct

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
May 7, 2002

The Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids is preparing to provide prosecutors with records of sexual allegations involving priests, even as another cleric is stepping down due to allegations of past abuse.

The Rev. Dennis Wagner, who in 1983 was convicted of assault and battery involving a 13-year-old boy, has been suspended while the diocese investigates a recent allegation that he sexually abused a teen-age male, diocesan officials said Monday.

Wagner is the third priest forced from duties in the diocese in recent weeks. The alleged abuse "may have occurred in the early 1980s," according to a diocesan statement.

Officials also said for the first time the diocese has substantiated four other allegations of abuse of minors by Wagner during the 1980s. The diocese didn't learn of the allegations until many years later, officials said.

Given the history of incidents, Bishop Robert Rose "felt it was prudent to relieve Father Wagner of all duties while the investigation is conducted," the diocese said in a written statement.

Rose and other top diocesan officials declined refused to comment beyond the four-paragraph statement.

A diocesan spokeswoman, Mary Haarman, said the investigation "will have to go through the victim assistance (process). I'm not sure where it is in that process."

Asked why Wagner was asked to step down now and not when the four previous allegations were made, Haarman would only say the action is "consistent with Bishop Rose's commitment to prudently review any new allegations or cases" as stated in an April 25 news conference.

Wagner, 53, was not working as a parish priest but was a canon lawyer in the Diocesan Tribunal Office processing marriage annulment applications, Haarman said. She said he has not had any parish assignments since his 1983 conviction.

Haarman and other diocesan leaders would not provide details on the accuser or where the alleged abuse occurred. She did say none of the other four substantiated allegations occurred during the tenure of Rose, bishop since 1989.

Haarman said the diocese does not know if this allegation is related to the 1983 case because that case was between the Muskegon County prosecutor and Wagner, who hired his own lawyer.

Efforts to reach Wagner on Monday and this morning were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Muskegon County Prosecutor Tony Tague confirmed he sent a letter to the diocese asking for all files and records pertaining to sexual allegations against priests or other church officials in that county.

A lawyer for the diocese said he intends to cooperate with Tague and Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth, who has said he also would ask to see diocesan files.

"I'd like to coordinate (Forsyth's request) with Muskegon so we're not going in two different directions," said John Tully, trial lawyer for the diocese. "But there's no question the information that's necessary for them to form a judgment as to any criminal responsibility will be made available."

Tully said he expects Wagner's files would be included, saying, "The records we have of complaints against him would be things we'd share with them."

However, he said he still was discussing with Forsyth exactly what the prosecutor wants to see.

"There are some privileges that would apply to some files or all files," Tully said. "I've got to find out what it is they want and whether the information they want can be given without a problem. I think it can."

Tully said the diocese also would cooperate with prosecutors from any of the nine other counties in the diocese. But he said he has "no idea" how many total files on priests the diocese will share. The Archdiocese of Detroit last week turned over files on more than 50 priests accused of sexual misconduct over the last 15 years.

Ottawa County Prosecutor Ron Frantz said he has not yet decided whether he will request files from the diocese. He plans to wait and see if the church develops a nationwide policy requiring church officials to report allegations of abuse to authorities.

"I feel the policy of the church should be to report to law enforcement directly and not rely on law enforcement to ask for the reports. In a national sense, that is being considered as a possibility for the church to take," Frantz said.

In 1983, the Rev. Wagner was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly fondling a 13-year-old boy he had driven to a Newaygo County cabin and gone inner-tubing with on the Muskegon River. At the time, Wagner was a pastor at St. Michael's parish in Coopersville but took a leave of absence after his arrest.

Wagner pleaded to lesser charge of assault and battery and was placed on probation for two years. As a condition of the sentencing, Wagner was to report regularly to then-Bishop Joseph Breitenbeck.

Since then, Wagner has undergone "extensive evaluation and counseling," according to the diocese statement. That has included a residential treatment plan, several outpatient programs and "years of monitoring and follow-up treatment." The statement said Wagner will continue in a group support program and will be monitored.

Spokeswoman Haarman said she could not specify when the four additional allegations against Wagner came to light.

"We were not made aware of those until many years later," she said, adding the diocese only substantiated them in recent years.

Wagner's suspension is the latest in a series of disclosures involving priests that have rocked the West Michigan diocese in recent weeks.

The Rev. Daniel Aerts, 52, resigned in late April after admitting to sexually abusing a teen-age boy 23 years ago. Aerts headed parishes in Reed City in Osceola County and Paris in Mecosta County. The abuse occurred when he was an associate pastor at Holy Spirit and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes in Grand Rapids in 1979. The Rev. Vincent Bryce, 72, resigned a week before that after he also admitted to abusing a young male about 25 years ago in another state. Bryce headed parishes in Edmore and Stanton since 1995.

Also, officials confirmed last month the diocese paid $500,000 in 1994 to settle sexual-abuse claims by three sisters against the late Rev. John Thomas Sullivan. Sullivan was an associate priest at Holy Spirit parish in Grand Rapids in the late 1950s.


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