Former Priest Faces Suit over Alleged Sex Abuse
James Thiel, Who Once Taught at Catholic Central and Now Works at Sheldon Complex, Blames an Activist Group for Encouraging the Suit

Grand Rapid Press [Michigan]
August 11, 2004

A national sex-abuse victims' group came to Grand Rapids Tuesday to ask the Catholic Diocese to alert the public about a former priest and teacher accused of child abuse.

James Thiel resigned from teaching at Grand Rapids Catholic Central 10 years ago, after allegations of abuse in St. Louis years earlier came to light.

Thiel denies any misconduct. But leaders of SNAP -- the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- believe he still may pose a threat to children.

"We want (the diocese) to warn people that Father Thiel is now living here in Grand Rapids, so that they can protect their children," said SNAP President Barbara Blaine of Chicago, in a news conference in front of the diocesan headquarters at 660 Burton St. SE.

Thiel, who taught religion at Catholic Central from 1986 to 1994, was served Friday with a lawsuit alleging he molested a middle-school boy in St. Louis from 1978 to 1981. Two other St. Louis-area men say they received confidential church settlements of their abuse allegations dating from the 1970s.

Thiel, who was a member of the Denver-based Redemptorist order of priests, never was accused of abuse while teaching here, said diocesan spokeswoman Mary Haarman.

"The diocese was not made aware of any allegations related to Thiel in 1986 when he was hired," Haarman said. "We did not learn of (allegations) until the Redemptorists notified us in July 1994."

James O'Donnell, superintendent of diocesan schools and Catholic Central principal when Thiel was hired, did not return several calls.

Former Bishop Robert Rose accepted Thiel's resignation that August and revoked his credentials for public ministry in the diocese, Haarman said. The diocese has not reported his removal in its public accounting of abusive priests because he is not a diocesan priest, she added.

SNAP leaders said the diocese should use its Web site, its newspaper and parish bulletins to let people know Thiel is living here and has been accused of abuse.

After meeting with the SNAP leaders Tuesday, Haarman issued a press release saying the diocese "continues to invite persons who were sexually abused by a member of the clergy or church personnel to come forward" by calling 243-0491.

Haarman said information on how to report abuse is posted in churches, schools and diocesan media including the Web site,

Thiel denied the charges in the lawsuit.

"There's no truth to what they're saying," said Thiel, 59, who is from Grand Rapids and sometimes filled in at church services while an active priest. "To me, this whole thing is about money."

Thiel blamed SNAP for encouraging charges difficult to disprove. He said the lawsuit could hurt his work at the Sheldon Complex, 121 Franklin St. SE. He teaches English as a Second Language and high-school equivalency classes to job-seekers.

"The 'Snappers' will be delighted," Thiel said. "They should think about all the people they're abusing here."

The man bringing the lawsuit in St. Louis gave detailed accounts of his abuse and said Thiel never should have been allowed to teach in Grand Rapids.

"Who the hell sent him to the high school to work around more teenagers, more young adults who were underage?" fumed the accuser, who asked not to be named and is listed as John Doe on the lawsuit.

The man, who is in his mid-30s, said Thiel abused him "many times" while the man served as an altar boy and while on mission trips to poor neighborhoods. His suit asks for unspecified damages from Thiel, the Redemptorists, the Archdiocese of St. Louis and Archbishop Raymond Burke.

Victims' advocates said the case shows a weakness in bishops' efforts to curb abuse. Priests from religious orders can move around the country without adequate supervision from their orders or local bishops, the advocates charge.

Thiel and the Redemptorists parted ways beginning in 1980 because their respective goals were "incompatible," said the Rev. Richard Thibodeau, provincial superior of the order's Denver province. From then on, he was "basically a free agent" as he sought to affiliate with a local diocese, Thibodeau said.

The order did not assign Thiel to teach in Grand Rapids and "had absolutely no idea there were any allegations against Father Thiel until 1994," he said.

It immediately notified the Grand Rapids diocese and began a process which led to his dismissal from the order in 1997, Thibodeau said.

John Dolce, an assistant principal at Forest Hills Northern High School who taught with Thiel at Catholic Central, said he never heard of any inappropriate behavior and that Thiel "had a great rapport with our kids."


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