The Rev. William F. Rensing, pastor of a parish in Sparta, is the latest Belleville Diocese priest to be officially accused of sexual abuse of a minor and removed from active ministry.
On Monday, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville announced the “administrative” removal of Rensing, 72, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. The so-called “stage one” removal means that while Rensing will not be allowed to say Mass or perform other priestly duties, he will still get paid.
The church in Sparta does not operate a school.
Rensing becomes the second Belleville Diocese priest to be removed in just over a month following the Rev. Daniel L. Friedman’s removal on Sept. 20. Friedman, 56, stepped down after being informed by Gregory that he would be removed in connection with allegations of sexual abuse of boys at the church run Camp Ondessonk in the 1980s.
The Rev. Monsignor James Margason, vicar general of the diocese, said the removal of Rensing was recommended by the Diocesan Fitness Review Board, which has been investigating a claim made by an unnamed man who alleged that Rensing sexually abused him in 1970 when he was a minor. Rensing was removed on Saturday.
The criminal statute of limitations expired long ago for suspected sex crimes in that category. But the charter adopted in Dallas in June at a conference of American bishops headed by Gregory requires a priest to be removed for any sex crime involving a minor that is considered proven by any diocesan review board.
In this particular case, Margason said Rensing is suspected of having abused a man three decades ago in Fairview Heights.
In July, the man called the diocese sex abuse hot line. The caller stated that not only had he been abused by Rensing, but was himself under investigation for child abuse by the state Department of Children and Family Services.
Because diocesan officials were concerned that the man might criminally incriminate himself while telling his story about abuse by a priest, the investigation lagged for months.
Eventually, the dioceses provided the man with free legal counsel by a lawyer who volunteered his services.
Margason said that the review board’s vote was, “based on what they believe is enough information available to them to say that the allegation seems credible.”
David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, criticized the diocese for taking as long as it did to remove Rensing. The call from the man was made to the hot line sometime in July, although church officials have not been able to provide a precise date.
“I really feel for his victim or victims. Especially the person who had the courage to make this disclosure,” said Clohessy.
“It must have been very painful for this person to watch the weeks and weeks drag on while Rensing stayed in his parish. I desperately hope and pray that during those months, no one else was hurt by Rensing,” Clohessy said.
Margason said, “I can’t say he (Rensing) was never in contact with children, but there is no school at that parish.”
Rensing could not be reached for comment. But in August, when contacted by a Belleville News-Democrat reporter and asked whether he was under investigation by the diocese for child abuse, he said, “There is no reason why I would be.”
Margason said that the “stage two” investigation by the review board is now under way and is expected to take several months. If the board decides at the end of this probe that Rensing did indeed sexually abuse a minor, his permanent removal from the priesthood will be sought by Gregory. Only Pope John Paul II has the power to completely remove a priest from the priesthood.
If the board decides Rensing is innocent of the charges, he will be restored to ministry.
A priest for more than 30 years, Rensing lived for several years with the Rev. Jerome Ratermann of Sparta, who was among 12 priests and one deacon removed since 1993 for alleged sexual abuse mostly involving minors.
Ratermann, 71, who denies wrongdoing, has appealed his case to Rome.