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Area Priest Sentenced To 32 Months In Sex Abuse Case

Oct 19, 2002 | The Kansas City Star

There was no cry or gasp in the small courtroom Friday when a judge sentenced the Rev. Dennis Schmitz for inappropriately touching a 15-year-old boy.

But after all the talk of probation, people seemed stunned at the decision: 32 months in prison.

Schmitz, who remained composed, conferred with his attorney and his Catholic priest adviser while sheriff's deputies approached. Then Schmitz walked out in front of the deputies, on his way to the Douglas County Jail.

"I think (Schmitz) was surprised and disappointed," defense attorney Stephen Mirakian said several hours later. "But he is holding up all right."

Schmitz, who faces a second charge in Nemaha County, Kan., involving the same boy, now 19, is the only Kansas City area priest who has faced criminal charges since the sexual abuse scandal rocked the Roman Catholic Church earlier this year. Since January, the church has removed at least 300 of the 46,000 priests in the United States from their ministries.

Schmitz, 41, is the first area priest to be sent to prison on a sex-related charge in more than a decade.

He pleaded guilty Sept. 5 to taking indecent liberties with a minor in fall 1998 at his Douglas County residence. In exchange for the plea, Assistant District Attorney Ruth Ritthaler agreed not to argue against a defense motion for probation.

On Friday, Ritthaler upheld that agreement but did point out that Kansas sentencing guidelines presume prison. She recommended 32 months, a month more than the minimum for such an offense and two months less than the maximum.

Before the ruling, Schmitz apologized to the court and to the victim, who was seated toward the back of the courtroom.

"I don't know why I did what I did," Schmitz said, "but the devil works overtime and no one, no matter what their station in life, is exempt from temptation....I promise that I will work to mend my life."

Douglas County District Judge Michael Malone said that he saw Schmitz as a man who had dedicated his life to God and was remorseful, and as one who betrayed the 15-year-old and "scarred him for life."

In the end, he said, Schmitz put his personal desires and impulses above the law of the state and the trust of his church. As such, the judge said, he did not believe that it would be appropriate to grant probation and send Schmitz to an out-of-state, outpatient treatment center, as the defense requested.

Neither the victim nor his family spoke. But Malone said that he had read letters they wrote him and was particularly touched by part of the victim's letter, which he read.

"One of the hardest things for me is to go to church," the victim wrote. Being there, he said, intensifies all of his bad feelings about what happened. "It is depressing," he wrote.

Neither the young man nor his family could be reached for comment.

Ritthaler did not return a telephone call.

Also declining to comment were Schmitz's father, Norbert Schmitz, and his brother, David Schmitz.

The father had testified that his son was "an honest, hard-working man." He was too emotional to say more.

David Schmitz testified that his brother had "always been a good caring person. He's done a lot of good for people over the years."

Kansas City psychologist Delaney Dean testified for the defense that she thought that there was a low risk that Schmitz would repeat the crime. And he is not a pedophile, she said, defining the term as one who is attracted to prepubescent children.

Dean testified that Schmitz would benefit from psychotherapy and from attending the St. Louis Consulting Center, which she said had served priests in the past and had a good reputation. He is highly motivated to change, she said.

"His behavior is very much at odds with his own values and his vocation," she said. "It has created a lot of turmoil in his life."

Under cross-examination by Ritthaler, Dean said that Schmitz had become very close to the 15-year-old and his family before the offense occurred. He spent time at their home, she said, because the family had another boy who died after an illness.

Schmitz was emotionally weak at the time, Dean said, because a sexual relationship with an adult priest had just ended.

Mirakian, the defense attorney, said that he was surprised that the judge found the recommendation of a treatment center inappropriate simply because it was out of state and treated people on an outpatient basis. He said that he did not think that the state's sentencing guidelines required an in-state, residential center.

Mirakian said that he was researching the law for a way to present his concern to the court.

He said that he expected Schmitz would remain in the Douglas County Jail until at least Oct. 31, when he goes to court in Nemaha County. Mirakian said that he was still working on a plea agreement with the county prosecutor there.

The Nemaha County charge alleges that Schmitz engaged in lewd fondling of the teen-ager between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1, 1999, at S&S Ranch.

Schmitz is a co-owner of the ranch.

Also pending is a civil lawsuit that the teen-ager has brought against Schmitz in Douglas County. Included as a defendant is the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

The archdiocese did not respond to a request Friday for comment.

Schmitz was ordained in 1989. He served in several Johnson County parishes, including St. Ann's in Prairie Village, Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park and St. Joseph's in Shawnee. He was popular among young people, serving as the vocations director for the archdiocese.

He founded the Runnin' Revs, a group of basketball-playing priests in Kansas.

The archdiocese removed Schmitz from his duties as a priest in May. He can no longer celebrate Mass or wear clerical garments.

The archdiocese plans to wait until legal proceedings are resolved before beginning laicization, the process of removing him permanently from the priesthood. The process requires the Vatican's approval.


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