Priest with Past Abuses Still Serves in Diocese

Grand Rapid Press
May 18, 2002

The Rev. Donald Heydens -- now the only priest in the Diocese of Grand Rapids still serving despite what Catholic leaders say are substantiated incidents of sexual abuse -- was once the focus of a six-figure settlement by the diocese, the victim's lawyer said Friday.

But diocese leaders say Heydens does not pose a threat of further abuse. He underwent extensive psychotherapy evaluations and counseling after further allegations came to light from 1991 to 1993, spokeswoman Mary Haarman said. Ongoing medical evaluations indicate Heydens remains fit to serve, she said.

"When you take that coupled with the fact he's a very intelligent man, he has a lot to offer," Haarman said.

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle said the 1989 settlement for her client was less than the $500,000 the diocese paid out in 1994 to settle claims of three women against the late Rev. John Thomas Sullivan. She would not provide a dollar amount because she said the agreement was confidential. But she disputed that the money was only for therapy costs, as the diocese has claimed.

"They can call it what they like, but that's not what we called it," LaBelle said. She said the money also was for emotional distress, pain and suffering endured by the woman, who was 16 at the time of the abuse.

The diocese previously has acknowledged the settlement stemming from abuse incidents from 1971 to 1973, but figures never have been disclosed. The diocese said Thursday it had confirmed four allegations against Heydens in the early 1970s. It previously has acknowledged the cases involved girls ages 12 to 16.

Heydens is the only priest still active in the diocese, on a limited basis, among the eight named Thursday as having had sexual-abuse allegations confirmed against them.

The diocese has not disclosed how many total alleged victims it has paid counseling costs to or reached settlements with, or how much payments have totaled. It has encouraged anyone who believes they were abused by a priest to contact its victim assistance program.

Heydens has complied with treatment and proven himself worthy of continued service in non-parish roles, the diocese says.

"He underwent a series of extensive psychotherapy evaluations and counseling programs," Haarman said. "Based on all those evaluations, (officials) feel he is not a threat."

"He's a very educated and talented individual."

Heydens, 57, was found to have committed sexual misconduct from 1970 to 1974, while he was a pastor at St. Francis Xavier parish in Grand Rapids.

The allegations shocked St. Thomas the Apostle parish in 1993, where Heydens was serving at the time, when a victim told the parish council she had been molested as a teen-ager. She later filed suit and was awarded a $5,000 settlement in 1994.

Diocesan officials said then that Heydens acknowledged the sexual misconduct and had offered to meet with the women. Officials also admitted at the time that they should have told parish leaders about the 1989 settlement after it was made.

Heydens was allowed to remain at St. Thomas after the settlement because testing and therapy indicated he did not pose a threat. However, he was removed from the post after that and other allegations became public.

Haarman said Heydens received therapy from an out-of-state clinic, and did not return to diocese work until 1994 when he began serving in the Diocesan Tribunal Office, helping to process marriage annulments.

Beginning in 1996, Heydens was allowed to say Mass as a guest preacher at various parishes, but only after receiving permission from the diocese each time, Haarman said. She said Heydens says Mass "very, very rarely," including at St. Catherine's parish in Ravenna and Holy Trinity at Comstock Park. He preached most recently in early April at St. Stephen's parish of East Grand Rapids.

An office worker at Holy Trinity said Heydens fills in there two or three times a year. She said Heydens is never alone with children and has not generated complaints from parishioners.

"There are people who ask, 'Why don't you have him more often?' " said the worker, who asked not to be named.

Heydens also does jail ministry and directs a program that trains lay people to become deacons, Haarman said. He lives in a private home in Walker, continues to receive therapy and attends a support group, she said.

Heydens did not return messages left Friday at his home or with his secretary at the Diocesan Tribunal Office.

LaBelle, the lawyer of the victim in the 1989 settlement, said keeping Heydens away from teen-agers was a key provision.

"He couldn't be put in a position where he was going to be alone or involved with kids under the age of 21," LaBelle said. "If he was anywhere he could likely come in contact with them, the parish had to be advised of his history and let them decide if they wanted to risk it."

Haarman said she does not know if parishioners are told of Heydens' history, but noted the allegations against him were "a very public case."

She said she is not aware of any complaints that Heydens continues to serve.

perform priestly functions.

"He's a wonderful homilist (preacher), a very caring individual and a strong leader," she said.


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