Priest Is Penalized after Sixth Report of Abuse
The Latest Accusation Prompted the Bishop to Permanently Remove Dennis Wagner from Priestly Duties

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
May 9, 2002

When the past finally caught up with the Rev. Dennis Wagner, it was decades too late for at least one victim.

Steven Kelly watched a videotape of Bishop Robert Rose on Wednesday as the bishop announced he was stripping the Grand Rapids priest of his collar for abusing at least six boys in the 1980s.

"The diocese has put more effort into protecting him than in helping those he has hurt or could potentially hurt," said Kelly, 33, who says Wagner sexually abused him when he was 13.

"Why didn't they contact the victims (over the years) and ask them how they were doing?"

The dismissal of Wagner, 53, is the third time in just over two weeks that a priest in the Grand Rapids diocese has been forced out by allegations of years-old abuse.

But the case is distinct in that it is the first where diocesan officials have known for years of multiple previous victims.

The first public glimpse of trouble surrounding Wagner was in 1983, when he was convicted in Muskegon County of fondling a boy and was reassigned to mostly non-pastoral duties.

In the years that followed, the bishop now acknowledges, the diocese learned of four other cases as victims stepped forward.

When another allegation arose against Wagner in recent days, the bishop did what he had not done earlier -- permanently removed Wagner from priestly duties.

Wagner can no longer wear his collar. Following the U.S. bishops meeting in June, Rose will decide whether to recommend defrocking the priest, which only the pope can do.

"I have informed Father Wagner that he has no future in the priesthood," Rose said in a prepared statement.

"I want you to know that my decision to remove (Wagner) from all duties reflects a diocesan policy that was built on knowledge and information we did not have 17 years ago," the bishop added.

Wagner's attorney this morning disputed the nature of the action taken against the priest. James Brady said Wagner was not dismissed, but was allowed to retire.

"He's in seclusion and prayer right at this time," Brady said. "He's received a lot of prayers and a lot of support from people who know him."

Since the national scandal plaguing the Catholic Church broke earlier this year, the 11-county Grand Rapids diocese has been rocked by a number of revelations involving priests,.

After inquiries by The Press, the diocese in early April acknowledged it paid $500,000 to three women for abuse by the late Rev. John Thomas Sullivan dating to the late 1950s. Three more women have since come forward claiming abuse by Sullivan.

In subsequent weeks, two priests -- the Rev. Vincent Bryce and the Rev. Daniel Aerts -- were forced to resign after accusations of abuse dating to the 1970s arose, followed by another case involving Wagner.

The rapid-fire revelations have led the diocese to increasingly rely on one of the area's top public relations firms -- Seyferth, Spaulding and Tennyson -- to coordinate its response.

The firm worked with Rose to develop a videotaped response sent to the media along with a prepared statement Wednesday, but reporters were not allowed to question Rose.

"(Bishop Rose) is a 74-year-old man trying to deal with all this," said Ginny Seyferth, owner of the company.

Still, many questions have gone unanswered by the diocese. Officials have not disclosed how many total allegations of sexual abuse by priests it has on file, how many alleged victims it has compensated and how much has been paid to those alleged victims.

Wednesday's announcement focused on Wagner and how the diocese has handled his case.

According to the statement, Wagner was ordained in 1976 and served at St. Stephen's parish in East Grand Rapids and St. Michael's in Coopersville before his 1983 conviction.

He was charged with gross indecency, a felony, after allegedly fondling a 13-year-old Coopersville boy during an outing to the priest's cabin in Muskegon County. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation.

Then, beginning about 10 years ago, "the diocese received four unrelated calls alleging incidents involving (Wagner) and the abuse of minors in the 1980s," Rose said in the news release.

Separate investigations substantiated each call, Rose said.

After the first call, Wagner was sent to an intense residential treatment program, the statement said. Upon his return, he was assigned to office duties and restricted from saying Mass except on special occasions, the bishop said.

Wagner has worked in the diocesan offices processing marriage annulment applications, according to diocese officials.

In 2000, he held seminars in Grand Rapids for single adults called, "Divorced and Catholic: Where Do I Stand With My Church."

He has not had parish assignments since his 1983 conviction, church officials said.

Rose said Wagner had to live with other pastors and was under supervision. His residences included parish homes at St. Adalbert and St. Thomas in Grand Rapids, Holy Family in Caledonia, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Belmont and St. Pius X in Grandville.

Rose's statement wasn't clear whether the men who came forward after Wagner's 1983 conviction were abused before or after that case, though Wagner's lawyer said they would have predated it.

Kelly said he was abused in the early 1980s, but he doesn't recall exactly when.

The Grand Rapids-area man was raised in a Catholic home so devout he describes it as "pre-Vatican II" -- no meat on Fridays, Catholic schools from kindergarten through college and priests as fixtures at the home.

As Kelly entered puberty, Wagner was there, he said. Trips to play racquetball with the priest turned into abuse in the locker room showers, he said.

"When you're that age, you look at the priests as God," Kelly said. "It was the perfect time for him to spend some 'quality time' with us."

Kelly said the abuse has haunted him. Stress from dealing with it led him to quit his job as a chemical salesman, he said. He is now a stay-at-home dad.

He said his two sons were baptized in the church, but he has trouble trusting anyone but close family members to spend time alone with them.

Kelly said it wasn't until a few years ago that he decided to confront church officials. He said he met with Vicar General Msgr. Terrence Stewart in 1999, who Kelley said confirmed the church had verified his claim. The diocese also agreed to pay for counseling.

Kelly said the church continues to seem more anxious about its image than about dealing with the abusing priests and helping their victims.

He hopes the church will take responsibility for the man he believes they sheltered for so many years.

"I want them to take care of him, not just put him out on the streets where he could do the same thing," Kelly said.


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