Could Have Prosecuted Priests, Forsyth Says
However, the Kent County Prosecutor Says the Statute of Limitations Has Run Out, Making Charges Impossible.

Grand Rapids Press
May 17, 2002

[Note: Names of accused priests in this article were bolded by See the related article Diocese Reveals Incident of Priest Abusing Child after His Conviction, Grand Rapids Press, May 17, 2002.]

Some Kent County priests could have faced criminal charges if diocesan leaders had told police immediately about sex-abuse allegations in recent decades, Prosecutor William Forsyth said following an unprecedented review of church files.

But Forsyth says it is too late to charge any of the 11 priests investigated by the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids in Kent County since the 1950s. The statute of limitations has long run out, and some are dead, he said.

"From what I saw, I didn't see anything in the files that would allow me to bring any criminal charges," Forsyth said.

A lawyer for the diocese on Thursday opened the church's sex-abuse files to the Kent County Prosecutor's Office.

The local diocese also promised to report to police any future allegations of sexual abuse involving minors, though it is not required by law.

The moves were in response to recent revelations of decades-old cases of child molestations by area priests. They are part of a wave of similar accusations against priests across the country.

Forsyth said he saw about 15 allegations against 11 priests in Kent County, though not all of those were substantiated by the diocese.

In all, the diocese on Thursday disclosed it had substantiated 19 allegations involving eight priests between the 1950s and 1985 in Kent, Ionia, Muskegon and Mason counties. Diocesan officials promised to share information from its files with prosecutors in other West Michigan counties.

Forsyth said he spent about two hours Thursday with the diocese's attorney, John Tully.

"I saw cases where, if we had known, they could have been prosecuted," Forsyth said. "But that also assumes I had a victim who wants to prosecute somebody. I can tell you from looking at some, some (of the victims) never did want that to happen."

In a statement issued Thursday after the meeting, the diocese released a chart naming eight priests in the 11-county diocese against whom allegations had been substantiated.

The chart also included the number of substantiated allegations, the dates of the allegations and when the diocese learned of them -- sometimes a span of many years -- and today's status of the priests.

Four of the priests were working in Kent County at the time of their assaults, the diocese said.

The diocese said it also shared its files on unsubstantiated allegations with Forsyth, though details on those were not included in the information released by the diocese.

Forsyth said he was satisfied he got the "pertinent information from the files."

"For reasons I don't know the answer to, nor does it matter at this point, the victims either chose not to go to authorities, or the church chose not to disclose it," he said. "Regardless of the reasons, there's nothing I can do about it now."

Under the statute of limitations, a sexual assault typically can be prosecuted within six years of the incident. If the victim is a younger child, the abuse can be prosecuted until the child is 21.

The substantiated list includes the Rev. Dennis Wagner, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault after being accused of fondling a 13-year-old Coopersville boy in 1983. Wagner was placed on probation and sent to counseling programs through the church before resuming limited priestly duties.

But the list shows Wagner continued to abuse children for two years after that conviction. The church said it substantiated six allegations against Wagner -- more than any other priest on the list -- from incidents between 1982 and 1985.

Bishop Robert Rose removed Wagner from all priestly duties early this month after recently learning of the sixth allegation, also dating to the 1980s. The diocese acknowledged learning of additional abuse allegations against Wagner beginning in 1993.

Steven Kelly, who was 12 when he says he was sexually molested by Wagner at St. Joseph's Seminary in Grand Rapids in the early 1980s, said the church waited too long to make a full confession.

"They're coming clean because they're forced to come clean," said Kelly, 33, of the Grand Rapids area. "But are you sorry because you got caught or are you sorry because you're really sorry?"

There is one active priest on the list, the Rev. Donald Heydens. In the early 1990s, the diocese substantiated four allegations of abuse involving young girls in the early 1970s, while Heydens was at St. Francis Xavier Church in Grand Rapids. The diocese made out-of-court settlements in 1989 and 1994.

He now serves in the Diocesan Tribunal Office and has directed a training program for deacons. He says Mass with permission from the diocese, the statement said.

Other cases include the Rev. Daniel Aerts, who resigned April 28 from parishes in Reed City and Paris after admitting to abusing a teen-age boy in 1979 while serving at St. Thomas and Holy Spirit parishes in Grand Rapids.

The Rev. Louis Baudone was cited for two allegations of abuse in 1981 while serving in Muskegon Heights. Baudone still lives in the diocese but has been relieved of all priestly duties, the statement said. Baudone resigned from churches in Hart and Elbridge in 1993 following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Other priests named have died or are no longer in the diocese. The Rev. Stanislaus Bur was listed for an abuse allegation in the 1950s in Ionia. Bur later became part of the Saginaw Diocese, where he has been relieved of all assignments, the diocese said.

Deceased priests include the Rev. John Thomas Sullivan, named for three abuse allegations in the late 1950s while serving at Holy Spirit parish. The diocese paid a $500,000 settlement in 1994 to three women who said Sullivan repeatedly abused them.

The Revs. Eugene Alvesteffer and Lawrence Hartwig, also deceased, each was named for a single allegation, Alvesteffer while in Ludington in the 1970s and Hartwig in Muskegon in 1982.

The Rev. Vincent Bryce, who resigned April 21 from parishes in Stanton and Edmore, was not listed because he serves the Dominican order of priests and the abuse incident of about 25 years ago occurred out of state. Bryce has returned to the Dominican's Chicago offices.

From now on, allegations involving victims younger than 18 will be reported to law enforcement agencies "regardless of when the complaint is received," according to a letter signed by Sister Patrice Konwinski, chancellor of the 154,000-member diocese. The church said it sent the letter to all 11 county prosecutors in the diocese.

The stand went beyond the diocese's sex-abuse policy, which calls for referring allegations to civil authorities only after they had been judged "well founded" by an internal review.

"We think this is an important step in moving and enforcing this policy, and being who we're supposed to be in working through this," said the Rev. William Duncan, vicar general for the 11-county diocese.


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