Bishop May Ask Accused to Cut Ties As Priests
11 face sex abuse allegations

By George Pawlaczyk
Belleville News-Democrat
July 14, 2002

Belleville -- Bishop Wilton Gregory is reviewing the cases of 11 priests, forced out of the Belleville Diocese in the 1990s because of alleged sexual misconduct, to determine whether he will ask them to voluntarily cut all priestly ties.

If the request is made and the priests comply, the Belleville Diocese could save $101,827 per year in total benefits, including living stipends and health insurance to eight of the priests who asked for compensation.

If the priests refuse to cooperate, Gregory can ask Pope John Paul II to end their priesthood and make then regular members of the church.

All 11 priests currently are prohibited from ministering to parishioners or saying Mass.

The troubled priests have the right to appeal any local punishment to the Vatican, and any appeals will be heard by the 450-year-old Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its 23 members are made up of cardinals, archbishops and bishops.

Until recently, appeals were heard by the Congregation for the Prefecture of the Clergy, which has yet to act on an appeal submitted by ousted Belleville Diocese priest Robert Vonnahmen several years ago.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is expected to act quickly.

"They're not going to sit around and twiddle their thumbs for years, like Rome often does. They're going to act," said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

Gregory's current review was prompted by new, strict rules in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" adopted last month in Dallas by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is headed by Gregory.

The new guidelines, adopted in response to recent and past sexual abuse by some priests in the United States, require local bishops to ask offending priests to submit to the authority of the pope and ask to be laicized, or separated from all clerical connections to the Catholic Church. Only the pope can entirely remove a priest.

A priest who has been removed by the pope remains in the church, but as an ordinary layman.

"The new charter that the bishops put into effect calls for the (local) bishop to request the priest to ask to be laicized and if he refuses, then if there is even just one incident (of sexual abuse) the bishop should seek," his complete removal by the pope, said Monsignor James Margason, vicar general of the Belleville Diocese.

The only exceptions to total removal from clerical status that can be allowed for offending priests are for poor health or advanced age, Margason said.

Three of the 11 priests -- Vonnahmen, Robert Chlopecki and Louis Peterson -- who deny wrongdoing, months earlier asked for a "third stage review," by Gregory, which is a local appeal. Margason said Gregory found no reason to return the trio to ministry.

The three priests have since appealed to the Vatican.

If Gregory asks that the pope remove or laicize any or all of the 11, they, too, can appeal to the Vatican.

The other priests whose cases are being reviewed by Gregory are: Raymond Kownacki, Joseph Schwaegel, Walter MacPherson, Edwin Kastner, Eugene Linnemann, David Crook, Alan Ruppert and Jerome Ratermann.

The 12th priest removed from ministry, James Calhoun, died in 1996.


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