Diocese Reveals Incident of Priest Abusing Child after His Conviction
The Revelation Raises New Questions about How the Diocese Dealt with the Rev. Dennis Wagner

Grand Rapids Press
May 17, 2002

The Rev. Dennis Wagner molested another child while working as a priest even after his conviction 19 years ago for assaulting a teen-age boy, according to a document released Thursday by church officials.

The revelation raises new questions about how the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids dealt with the priest, including the steps it took to separate him from children.

Bishop Robert Rose earlier this month relieved Wagner of his priestly duties after substantiating a sixth sexual-abuse allegation involving minors against the priest dating back to the 1980s.

Wagner was ordained in 1976 and served in two parishes -- St. Stephen's in East Grand Rapids and St. Michael's in Coopersville -- before he was charged in 1983, church officials said.

Wagner was charged with gross indecency between males, a felony, for allegedly fondling the 13-year-old Coopersville boy several times while on an inner-tubing trip in Muskegon County. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault in Muskegon County Circuit Court and was sentenced to two years on probation.

Diocesan officials said they removed Wagner from parish duties at the time of his conviction, allowing him to celebrate Mass only when invited by a priest. He also was sent to psychiatric evaluation and counseling, church officials said.

But the document released Thursday by the diocese showed Wagner sexually molested six minors, one as late as 1985 -- two years after Wagner's conviction. The document provides no details about the allegations.

Wagner was living at Holy Family parish in Caledonia and working as a canon lawyer for the church's tribunal office at the time of the 1985 incident involving a boy, diocesan spokeswoman Mary Haarman said.

Haarman defended the church's handling of Wagner at the time. "The parameters given to Father Denny at that time were consistent with what the psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors were saying and his evaluation," she said.

Once the church learned in the early 1990s about the multiple allegations, including the 1985 incident, "everything changed," she said. "He became very restricted." He continued to live in diocese housing in several area parishes.

Diocese officials said they were aware of the 1983 conviction but no other allegations until 1993, when the first of four victims came forward.

Former State Police Sgt. James Albright, who investigated the case against Wagner, said he wasn't surprised that he molested again. "It's quite common for a pedophile to be a repeat offender," he said.

The mother of the 13-year-old Coopersville boy whom Wagner was convicted of molesting said she wonders now whether she should have pushed harder to have the priest locked up in 1983.

"They (prosecutors) asked me what I wanted. I said, 'I don't know if I really want him to go to jail.' You think of your priest: Do I want to put him in jail? I thought if he got help, maybe this would be the end of it.

"I guess we should have just gone to trial and put him away. That would have gotten him away from anybody else."


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