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Des Moines Diocese Removes Three Priests From Church

Sep 20, 2003 | AP

Three Roman Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children in the 1980s and earlier have been defrocked, officials with the Des Moines Diocese announced Friday.

Bishop Joseph L. Charron said the Revs. Albert Wilwerding, 73, John Ryan 79, and Richard Wagner, 68, were dismissed from the priesthood at the recommendation of the dioceses' Allegation Review Committee.

Wilwerding and John Ryan no longer served as priests. Wagner had been serving in a restricted capacity at the Basilica of St. John in Des Moines since 1994, but was removed earlier this week, said Tom Chapman, spokesman for the diocese.

Wilwerding, who has lived at the Servants of the Paraclete treatment center near St. Louis since 1984, was placed on leave in 1981. He last served as associate pastor at St. John's in Des Moines, where he was an associate pastor until he was placed on leave.

Wilwerding served in 11 parishes since he was ordained in 1956. Chapman said it's unknown where the alleged abuse occurred and that is was likely that there were incidents at other churches where Wilwerding served.

Telephone messages left Friday at the treatment center for Wilwerding and the center's director, the Rev. Peter Lechner, weren't immediately returned. Officials at St. Mary Catholic Church in Shenandoah, where Wilwerding served in 1978, declined to comment.

Ryan retired in 1988 after serving six years at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Des Moines. It was during that time that the alleged abuse occurred, Chapman said.

Officials at St. Theresa's declined to comment. Chapman said Ryan lives in Des Moines, but there was no telephone listing for him in the Des Moines area.

Wagner, who also served as a teacher at Dowling High School in West Des Moines and as president of the school from 1971-76, was pastor at St. Mary's parish in Red Oak when the alleged abuse occurred, Chapman said.

The Rev. Ken Gross, current pastor at St. Mary's, where Wagner served from 1987-1994, said he didn't know anything about the allegations until this week.

"It's sad and somewhat disturbing, but hopefully we can move on from here," Gross said.

Gross, who has been at the church for just two months, said Charron has sent priests in the diocese a letter addressing the issue to read at services this weekend.

Barb Kean, a secretary at the basilica, said Wagner was out of town and couldn't be reached Friday.

Dr. Jerry Deegan, current president at Dowling, said the announcement was a surprise to staff at the Catholic school in suburban Des Moines.

"We were disappointed to hear the news," he said Friday afternoon.

Students were not in class Friday because of faculty meetings, but he said there was little discussion about Wagner.

"My understanding is today's actions are related to actions long after he left the school," Deegan said. "The fact that he's been gone as long as he has, there aren't that many teachers, maybe a handful, who were here when he was here."

Robert Holz Jr., chairman of the Allegation Review Committee, said the recommendations submitted to Charron on Sept. 8 followed a yearlong investigation that included interviews with victims, their families and the priests.

In all, as many as six victims were interviewed, Holz said. He didn't estimate how many children may have been involved.

The committee was appointed to review past allegations of clergy abuse under an order issued last year by the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

Holz said the review committee is also reviewing one additional case involving allegations of abuse more than 20 years ago. He declined to release additional details.

Charron said the sexual abuse scandal has been distressing to the church.

"There has been pain and anger and sadness all stemming from the issue of sexual abuse by clergy," he said. "It's also very trying time for the victims of abuse. The memories of abuse are lifelong and they are painful."

Charron said he's met with victims of abuse and apologized on behalf of the church.

"But saying I'm sorry is just one step in the healing process," he said.

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