Policy Could Oust 3 Gr Diocese Priests
Bishop Robert Rose Will Debate the Proposed Sexual Abuse Policy with Other Bishops in Dallas June 13-15

Grand Rapid Press
June 5, 2002

Three priests in the Diocese of Grand Rapids could be defrocked for past instances of sexual abuse under a proposal to be considered by U.S. bishops next week.

If the policy were adopted and carried through locally, it would be the first known defrocking in the diocese's history, officials say.

The recommendations of an Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse call for dioceses to request laicization, or removal from the priesthood, of any priest who has committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor.

The diocese has identified three priests for whom it has substantiated multiple cases of sexual abuse: the Revs. Dennis Wagner, Donald Heydens and Louis Baudone. Only Heydens is an active priest, while the diocese has removed the other two from duty.

Bishop Robert Rose, speaking at a press conference Tuesday, said it is premature to talk about specific cases and that several of the committee's recommendations are likely to be revised when taken up at the national bishops conference June 13-15 in Dallas.

Still, Rose said he was encouraged by the proposals, many of which he said reflect actions taken by the local diocese more than a decade ago.

"While details of this document may change, these draft recommendations certainly offer a framework, as well as a promise, for a safer environment in the church for all our members," Rose said.

Rose called it "imperative" for the bishops to adopt national standards "to ensure a collective, proactive approach to protecting our children and young people."

He said "practically all" of the 18 articles in the draft could use work, but he refused to name specific changes he would like to see or to comment on how the proposals, if approved, could affect current priests.

Calling the proposals "a draft document," diocesan spokeswoman Mary Haarman said this morning that "it would be speculative to comment on how any of the language may impact a past case."

"Bishop Rose anticipates much dialogue and debate over issues involving past cases," Haarman said. "Specifically, there is need for parameters to be outlined and agreed upon by the vote of the bishops. Once those parameters have been outlined and approved, we will identify local cases that may apply."

The diocese recently released a list of eight living and deceased priests for whom it has substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors. Wagner, Heydens and Baudone were found to have committed more than one instance of abuse.

The diocese said it substantiated six allegations against Wagner, four against Heydens and two against Baudone. The allegations date from the early 1970s for Heydens, 1981 for Baudone and the mid-1980s for Wagner.

If any were defrocked, it would be the first known case of a priest being forcibly laicized in the history of the diocese, said the Rev. Dennis Morrow, diocesan archivist.

All are priests in the diocese, although Baudone and Wagner have been barred from all priestly duties and Wagner was stripped of his collar by Rose.

Heydens works in the Diocesan Tribunal Office, occasionally says Mass with diocesan permission and works in prison ministry.

Wagner, reached at the St. Pius X rectory in Grandville, and Baudone declined to comment this morning. Heydens could not be contacted.

The ad hoc committee proposal also calls for defrocking any priest guilty of a single act of abuse of a minor in the future. Rose has said he will remove any priest with just one verified instance of abuse in the future or recent past.

On Monday Rose said the diocese has implemented several provisions of the proposed national policy, including a victim assistance and counseling program and reporting abuse complaints to civil authorities.

The Rev. William Duncan, vicar general for the diocese and former parish priest for Our Lady of the Lake Church in Holland, said he expects intense debate over the recommendation that offending priests who cooperate with church rehabilitation requirements be allowed to continue as a priest if there is one substantiated incident.

But he refused to say whether he thinks it is appropriate.

"I think it's a good starting point," Duncan said.

Morrow, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Grand Rapids, said it is good for the church to begin to take a leadership role in dealing with sex abuse.

He said that even in civil law there are accommodations for first-time offenders, and he believes the church should take the same approach with those priests who can be rehabilitated.

But not everyone is willing to give the committee's recommendations a thumbs-up. Gerald O'Bee, a local member of the Catholic reform movement Call to Action, which supports making the church more democratic, says the recommendations fail to address the scandal's causes.

He said it was the hierarchical system of bishops in the church that led to covering up the abuse and to moving priests accused of sexual misconduct rather than removing them.

"This has been, to a large extent, a leadership problem," O'Bee said.


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