Abuse Charges Continue As GR Diocese Discusses Progress
Bishop Kevin Britt Says the Diocese Wants Victims to Continue to Come Forward, Even As It Works to Prevent Abuse

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
January 7, 2004

Sixteen more victims of sexual abuse by former priests within the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids have come forward in the last two years, bringing to 35 the total number of victims identified.

All the additional cases involve some of the eight priests already removed from office or who have died, Bishop Kevin Britt said Tuesday.

He made the announcement while discussing a national audit showing the 11-county diocese has made good progress in combating sexual abuse that dates to the 1950s.

Fourteen of the 35 abuse incidents were substantiated against former priest Dennis Wagner, the most recent charge coming in the past few weeks, Britt said.

That allegation was referred to the Newaygo County Prosecutor's office, diocesan spokeswoman Mary Haarman said. Angela Moore, office administrator at the Newaygo prosecutor's office, refused to confirm whether the prosecutor was investigating.

In May 2002, Wagner was removed from his duties as priest after some of the allegations against him became public. He has asked the Vatican for permission to leave the priesthood.

Nine people also have come forward to say they were abused by the late Rev. John Thomas Sullivan, who served in the diocese from 1958 to 1960.

The diocese has spent nearly $1.5 million in counseling costs, settlements and legal fees on victims over the past 50 years, officials said.

Since 2002, seven priests working in the Grand Rapids diocese have been removed or resigned for substantiated allegations of abuse.

Britt said the diocese wants victims to continue to come forward, even as it works to prevent future abuse.

"One priest is too many," Britt said at a press conference. "Eight priests is certainly terrible.

"We are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again."

But a local victims' advocate said the diocese has failed to contact many victims and that others don't trust it because of past deceptions.

"They've done what they were required to do, but what they were required to do was pretty easy," said Steven Kelly, who was abused by Wagner in the 1980s. "They have certainly failed in outreach."

However, an audit of 191 dioceses nationwide gave Grand Rapids good marks for its efforts, in a report released Monday by the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Performed by independent auditors from the Gavin Group of Boston, the study found Grand Rapids had met all the requirements of an abuse policy passed by U.S. bishops in 2002.

Those include reaching out to victims with assistance, establishing an abuse review board dominated by lay people, setting up a liaison with local civil authorities, and training parish leaders in maximizing children's safety.

The auditors commended the diocese's victim outreach program, which includes two trained social workers and an offer to provide counseling to all victims; and its open communications policy, including naming all the members of the abuse review panel.

Identifying panel members was unusual among dioceses when auditors visited the diocese early last summer, a church watchdog said.

"Grand Rapids was out front on that," said Kathleen McChesney, director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.

The report found all but 20 of the nation's dioceses and Eastern rite eparchies had complied with provisions of the national policy. All seven Michigan dioceses were found to be in compliance.

McChesney, a former high-ranking FBI official, said she sees "a tremendous amount of progress" but that much work remains. For instance, a mechanism is needed to measure parishes' compliance, and bishops need to provide guidance for support and supervision of removed priests, she said.

A local pastor said his church is training scores of staff and volunteers on how to spot signs of abuse and keep children out of risky situations.

"Because of what's happened, the church is going to end up taking a leadership role with this," said the Rev. Leonard Sudlik of Parish of the Holy Spirit.


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