GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Dennis Wagner lives at the end of a quiet, dead-end street in Norton Shores, where neighbors had no idea he was a former priest who molested six boys.
On his Facebook page, Wagner, 70, lists himself as “now retired and loving it,” and says he worked at Sears. There is no mention of the priesthood. He’s not on the sex offender registry. He was never convicted of a sex crime.
Wagner is one of 14 priests who molested a total of at least 33 boys and girls in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids over six decades, according to Target 8 research.
To this day, survivors of pedophile priests accuse the church of treating the abusers better than the abused. They question why they’ve had to fight for money for counseling while the church continues to support some of the offenders with pensions, which the diocese says it’s legally obligated to provide. They also get medical and dental benefits and car insurance.
“To be able to be out there living healthy lives, receiving healthy pensions and still no recourse, it just doesn’t seem right,” survivor Chris Burri said. “It doesn’t seem fair; it doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem logical to me that they hold the value of these folks up more than they hold the value of the victims.”
“Let them go out and get a job, or be homeless,” said Fran Heinemann, who was one of three sisters raped by a priest in the late 1950s. “Why do they get privilege, because they were supposedly priests?”
Five of the priests are living in private homes in West Michigan, from Byron Center north to near Big Rapids, where, in some cases, neighbors knew nothing of their past. Wagner lives next to a house with a wooden swingset in the backyard.
“I’m very fearful for anybody that would have children and for those children who would come into the presence of him, most definitely,” said Burri, who was 12 when Wagner raped him in 1985.
Only one priest in the diocese was ever convicted of a sex crime. And only one, Wagner, was totally removed from the priesthood.
Target 8 spent nearly six months investigating the legacy of priests who molested children in the Diocese of Grand Rapids.
The Michigan Attorney General in September announced it had launched an investigation into decades of sex abuse in the state’s seven Catholic dioceses, along with the church’s response. The AG said it started investigating after a Pennsylvania grand jury found 300 Roman Catholic priests there had molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.
A STRUGGLE TO ESCAPE
“I idolized those guys,” Burri said of his childhood priests. “I wanted to be like those guys. I wanted to follow in their footsteps and become a priest myself. I loved that church.”
In the summer of 1985, Burri was 12 when Wagner, a priest he idolized at Holy Family in Caledonia, swam up from behind him in Campau Lake near Caledonia.
“I struggled to get away,” Burri said.
Burri was an altar boy; Father Denny had quickly become a family friend.
“He grabbed onto me and forcibly would not let go,” Burri said. “He held me so tightly, and I struggled to get away, and to him it was a big game, and that’s the time he began fondling me, and it kind of went a little further from there.”
A lot further, actually, he said. Rape. The assault lasted half an hour.
“I struggled and struggled, and he just laughed the whole time,” Burri said.
His family didn’t know Wagner had already been charged while he was a priest at St. Michael’s in Coopersville with felony gross indecency for repeatedly fondling a 13-year-old boy in Muskegon County. For that, Wagner pleaded no contest to simple assault in 1983 and got probation.
That was two summers before the priest raped Burri.
In fact, Wagner sexually assaulted at least six boys in the early 1980s, all while being moved from church to church.
The survivor of the Muskegon County abuse is now 48 and doesn’t want to be identified. He told Target 8 he hasn’t heard from the diocese since he reported the crime and hasn’t gotten any money for counseling.
“I reported it and that’s the last I ever heard,” he said. “For me, I just want to let it go. It’s happened; it’s done.”
But more than 30 years later, Burri is still struggling to escape.
He cringes driving past Catholic churches and pays for his own counseling. He said he hasn’t heard from the diocese in years.
“I never felt, why me?” Burri said. “I felt, why isn’t the church protecting me? Why are they protecting him? Why is he (Wagner) more important than those he had abused?”
QUESTIONS OF TRANSPARENCY
After Michigan’s Attorney General’s Office announced it was investigating, the diocese of Gaylord published a list of 10 priests accused of sexually assaulting minors. The diocese said it was meant to show transparency.
But the Grand Rapids diocese has not published a complete list since 2002, when it identified eight priests with substantiated allegations against them. In 2002, the diocese said it had spent about $1 million on lawsuits and for counseling for abuse survivors, but it refused to say how much it has spent since.
Target 8 relied on its own archives, public library archives, court records, police reports and interviews with survivors to create a list of abusers.
The Grand Rapids diocese covers 11 counties: Ionia, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, Osceola and Ottawa.
Of the 14 priests Target 8 has identified, five have died, all still priests.
One was deported to his native Pakistan. The deported priest, Shauman Beas, now 50, was the only priest in the diocese convicted of sex crimes. He got up to 20 years in prison after an internet sting in 2004 for soliciting sex from someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl in Macomb County.
Two sisters from Holy Family in Sparta later came forward to report he had groped them in 2002. “It’s OK. I’m a priest,” he told one of the girls, according to court records.
For that, he got up to two more years in prison.
In 2002, then-Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth said more priests could have been criminally charged if the diocese immediately had reported allegations to police. But after reviewing the diocese’s files, he said the statute of limitations had long expired.
PRAYER, PENANCE AND PENSIONS
While Wagner is no longer a priest, it’s not clear if the Grand Rapids diocese is still paying him a pension. The diocese won’t say.
But the diocese is paying to support up to six other fallen priests. They are still priests, though they’re not allowed to dress or practice as clergy. They’re required to live a life of prayer and penance. The oldest is 87, the youngest 69.
While the diocese refused to say how much they are getting in pensions, other priests told Target 8 they get up to $2,000 a month, along with medical and dental insurance and car insurance.
The diocese refused to discuss the priests’ pension plan and records are not made public. But Jack Ruhl, a professor at Western Michigan University, who has studied diocesan pension funds, said most are funded directly by parishioners.
Fran Heinemann, now 73, and her two sisters were raped by the most notorious priest to ever pass through Grand Rapids: Father John Thomas Sullivan, who gave them STDs.
Sullivan raped as many as nine girls in West Michigan in the late 1950s, many more across the country and even fathered a child in New Hampshire before being moved to Grand Rapids. He died a priest in 1999 and was buried in Arizona with the title reverend.
Heinemann was the oldest of the sisters. She was 12. The others were 11 and 7.
“We were devout, devout Catholics. Mass every Sunday,” she said. “The priest was the embodiment of Christ. When he held that host up, and the wine, that’s the body and blood of Christ.”
In 1994, she and her sisters got the biggest settlement ever from the Grand Rapids diocese — $500,000 — but they had to sue to get it and wanted much more.
Another woman raped by Sullivan, who is now 73 and living near Grand Haven, said the church she still loves should not support surviving molesters.
“It’s not right,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be identified.
She said the church has done nothing for her beyond counseling years ago that she abruptly ended after the church’s therapist kept asking the same question:
“She asked me, ‘Well, was he good-looking?'” the woman recalled.
She hasn’t heard from the diocese since, even though she’s still a parishioner at a Catholic church in Grand Haven.
DEFENDING THE CHURCH
Target 8 reached out repeatedly to the Diocese Grand Rapids and at first got answers to preliminary questions. But the diocese refused to respond to follow-up questions and wouldn’t set up an interview with the bishop after the AG’s office announced its investigation.
So Target 8 approached Bishop David Walkowiak after a recent Mass. He defended the church’s treatment of survivors, along with the pensions and benefits paid to offenders.
“We still have an obligation to care for them. We still do,” Walkowiak said. “There is such a thing as forgiveness and there is such a thing as support, and I do believe that we have supported the victims that we know of.”
The church, he said, has changed since 2002, when U.S. bishops passed sweeping reforms in response to the abuse crisis. Now, church officials are required to immediately report allegations to police.
“And we immediately offer them (victims) help to deal with the pain and the suffering and the horrible things that they’ve been through,” he said.
But the reforms stopped short of defrocking any priest with two or more victims. Instead, the bishops decided to continue to support them without stripping them of their priesthood. Church leaders said it would help them keep track of them, a claim survivors still question.
“How are they keeping an eye on them?” said Fran Heinemann, one of the three sisters raped by a priest in the late 1950s. “Do they have stations set up for them to report to or something, if you are a wayward priest?
“I don’t want any children to suffer.”
The diocese refused to say how it tracks priests, other than to say it “remains in regular contact” with the abusers.
SURVIVORS FIGHTING FOR HELP
Survivor Bill McAlary told Target 8 that he met with Walkowiak in 2017, asking for money.
“My request for some form of restitution was vehemently denied,” McAlary said.
He said he was a 12-year-old altar boy at Saints Peter and Paul in Ionia in 1958 when Father Stanislaus Bur molested him at home.
“I was sound asleep, I wake up and he’s molesting me, in bed, and he was kneeling next to my bed,” McAlary said.
The priest, he said, was in his robe. He said he chased away the priest and immediately told his mother, who was in the kitchen, but she didn’t seem to believe him. She turned around and kept washing dishes, he said.
He said he didn’t report it to the church until more than 30 years later.
Bur died in 2009. McAlary said the church paid for two years of counseling in the 1990s after he came forward. McAlary said he couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t keep his marriage together and considered suicide.
He said the diocese has never reached out to him.
“They don’t do that,” he said. “They try to cover it up.”
A Grand Rapids-area man now in his 50s told Target 8 he was molested by then-Monsignor J. Walter Grill in the early 1970s while a parishioner at St. James in Grand Rapids. He said he was in the seventh or eighth grade.
The man said he got a lawyer in the late 1990s, hoping to get $90,000 from the diocese to pay for therapy, but he was beyond the statute of limitations. He said he got $10,000 instead.
He said Grill, who has since died, denied the allegation, and the diocese believed the priest.
Then, years later, the church started paying for more therapy after a family member cornered the bishop to ask for help, he said.
“I have never heard from my former pastor or the diocese to see how I am doing,” he said.
“My abuse as I got older caused many problems with my family. Fortunately, with a ton of therapy things are pretty good,” the man continued. “It’s been a godsend. I still have a lot of things that are triggers but therapy has helped with coping mechanisms. “
FALLEN PRIESTS LIVING IN WEST MICHIGAN
Today, at least five of the priests identified as abusers still live in West Michigan in private homes.
Records show the church did not help pay for the homes, worth anywhere $150,000 to $220,000.
There’s Father Donald Heydens, who was forced into retirement after molesting four girls in the 1970s while at St. Francis Xavier in Grand Rapids. At 74, he’s living on in southeast Grand Rapids. When Target 8 approached him outside his home recently, he refused to comment.
At 72, Father Michael McKenna, who molested several children in the 1970s at Sacred Heart in Muskegon Heights, lives in retirement in his home at Ridgestone Condominiums in Byron Center. He did not respond to repeated messages left on his door.
Jack Wentzlof was a 13-year-old altar boy at Sacred Heart, he said, when McKenna tried going down his pants. He came forward to the Muskegon Chronicle in 2007 after reading that McKenna had been forced into early retirement for molesting another boy.
“That’s all I asked for, was an apology, you know. I mean, why not?” Wentzlof told Target 8.
“I don’t know about the other kids, but I’ve never heard from the church,” he continued. “They’ve never reached out and talked to me, or anything.”
Father David LeBlanc resigned in 2007 after admitting to abusing a preteen boy in 1971 while at St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Muskegon. He was living in a home at Sierrafield Condominiums in Byron Center, but neighbors said he recently moved. It’s not clear where he lives now. He’s 83.
Father Daniel Aerts resigned in 2002 after admitting to abusing a teenage boy in 1979 while serving at St. Thomas and Holy Spirit in Grand Rapids. He’s 69 now, lives alone in farm country west of Big Rapids. He refused to comment. His neighbors said they didn’t know he was a Catholic priest or that he’d been forced into retirement for molesting a boy.
Two other fallen priests have moved away.
Property records show Louis Baudone, who molested at least two kids in 1981 in Muskegon County, had a home built off a country road in Maine. He’s 87. Target 8 got no response from Baudone after leaving a message with a neighbor.
A relative of Father Charles Antekeier, who molested a child in the mid-1980s while at St. James in Grand Rapids, said he lives in Florida.
COUNSELING, BUT NO FOLLOW-UP
When Burri first told the diocese in 1992 that Wagner had molested him, the church offered 10 counseling sessions. It helped, he said, but wasn’t enough. He hired an attorney to get $10,000 more for counseling.
“The church at the time said they were doing me a favor by doing this, that they didn’t have to do this,” Burri said. “They weren’t legally obligated to do this.”
A decade later in 2002, he got an attorney again after learning he wasn’t Wagner’s only victim.
“They unfortunately made you feel like you were one of the only ones at the time,” he said.
The church paid him $50,000 more but that ran out a long time ago, he said. He hasn’t heard from the church since.
“Never, that’s never once happened,” he said.
After the state announced it was investigating the church, Target 8 reached out to Wagner.
“I don’t have any thoughts. That was all taken care of 30 years ago,” Wagner said. “Thank you very much for coming out.”
Burri said he was astonished by what his rapist said.
“Great for him, you know. Great for him,” Burri said. “And for him it probably was taken care of years ago.
“It just goes to show you that they just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will,” he said. “I still don’t think that they by any means have victims’ best interest at hand.”
Anyone who has been victimized by a member of the Catholic church can confidentially report it to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office online or by calling 844.324.3374 during regular business hours. The state also has a hotline for all victims of sexual assault that offers support and resources: 1.855.VOICES4 (864.2374).