Priest Led Some Rites Despite Plea Deal
Some Connected to the Belmont Church Are Upset That the Rev. Dennis Wagner Performed Duties, but a Lifelong Parishioner Said His Offense Did Not Have to Be General Knowledge

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
May 11, 2002

Jennifer Vetter had only happy memories of her wedding in Belmont at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church -- a packed church, relatives from all over and photos in the park afterward.

Her memories soured this week, when she learned the priest who performed the ceremony, the Rev. Dennis Wagner, was ousted from the priesthood Wednesday for sexually abusing six boys in the 1980s.

She also learned that Catholic leaders in Grand Rapids let him continue to perform weddings, lead Mass and carry out other priestly duties despite a 1983 no-contest plea involving a 13-year-old boy that went undisclosed to parishioners.

"I have a really good marriage and two kids, and I go back and think, 'Gosh, this guy married us.' It just makes me really sick," Vetter said.

She's not the only person upset with leaders of the diocese.

Amy Heitzman was married by Wagner in April 1990, after she and her fiance went through premarital counseling with him.

"I would not have had Father Wagner marry us if I'd known up front he had been convicted of this," said Heitzman, 33, who has since divorced. "I find it repugnant."

The women also are angry the diocese has said Wagner was not assigned to parish ministry after the conviction. They say Wagner frequently filled in for the pastor, the Rev. John Porter, and performed virtually all the duties of a priest while he resided at Assumption in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"He was doing enough Masses where my mom and dad said, 'Gosh, we really like him. Why don't we have him do your wedding?' " Vetter said. "That they would say he wasn't even in a parish just made me so mad."

However, one lifelong parishioner says Wagner was a good priest and was well-supervised.

"I'm sure no boy has been molested at our school or church," said Aggie Zemke, 70. "I thought very highly of him, and I'm just sick that this has all happened."

But Vetter said Wagner's involvement now clouds her memories of her July 1989 wedding.

So many friends and relatives came to the new church that Wagner had to get extra communion wafers. Balloons floated into the sky as she and her groom, Craig, left the church. The wedding party climbed into limousines and got their pictures taken at John Ball Park.

"I had really good memories of that," said Vetter, 34, who now lives in Gaines Township. "Now I'm not so sure.

"To have this happen, it's just kind of like a sock in the gut."

She wishes she had known then what she read in news reports this week -- that Wagner in 1983 abused a 13-year-old Coopersville boy on an overnight trip to a cabin on the Muskegon River. According to police reports, Wagner repeatedly fondled him on the way there, while at the cabin and on an inner-tubing trip.

Wagner was charged with gross indecency in Muskegon County, but pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of assault and battery.

Wagner was placed on probation, and the diocese removed him from parish duties, Bishop Robert Rose said this week.

"He was limited to celebrating Mass occasionally if directly invited to a parish by another priest," Rose said in a news release. Wagner also underwent psychiatric evaluation and counseling that has continued since then, the bishop said.

The diocese says Wagner did live in homes or apartments on property owned by five parishes since the 1980s, but was not assigned as a pastor to any of them.

Wagner was under the supervision of pastors at those parishes, diocesan spokeswoman Ginny Seyferth said Friday. He was also being monitored by the diocese, which relied on the advice of counselors and other professionals evaluating him, she said.

"There was reporting from the (supervising) pastor to the diocese on his progress (and) his cooperation with the monitoring," she said.

When the diocese began receiving new abuse allegations against Wagner about 10 years ago, he was sent to an out-of-state "intense residential treatment program," Rose said.

After returning, he was "permanently restricted from saying Mass at any parish." Wagner was assigned to the Diocesan Tribunal Office and allowed to say Mass only at nursing homes and prisons, Rose said.

He also said Mass at the recent funeral of the Rev. Bernard Hall, a close friend.

The pastors of all the parishes where Wagner lived were "fully aware of Wagner's circumstances," the diocese said.

However, Vetter said she and other Assumption parishioners did not know of Wagner's conviction. She says they should have.

"There would be the potential for something to happen if parents weren't aware he's had some problems. They might have been more cautious."

Seyferth said the situation would be handled differently today, when society is "much better prepared to keep constant information in front of parents and communities."

"With the limited information we had in the 1980s, the diocese put in place what they felt was the best supervised program," she said.

"We know other parishes where father was at where most everybody in the parish knew" of his conviction, she added.

Zemke, the lifelong Assumption parishioner, said she knew but the congregation as a whole did not. She says it was not necessary because Wagner was not allowed contact with children.

Wagner was not allowed inside the parish school or to preside over Masses for the schoolchildren, a former school staff member said.

"They took precautions so that the kids would not be hurt," said the area woman, who asked not to be identified.

When Wagner said Mass on weekends, the church made sure an adult was always with children when they were getting ready to be altar servers, the woman said. But the Rev. Porter, the pastor, "was not given very much help by the diocese" in setting up guidelines to monitor his behavior, she said.

Porter is on sabbatical and could not be reached for comment.

Both Heitzman, whose husband's family belonged to the parish, and Vetter say they liked Wagner. He was friendly, personable and conducted a good wedding, they say.

"It just kind of shatters all that when you know the history now," Vetter said.


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