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Archbishop: Long-dead priest likely abused kids

March 21, 2011

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Archdiocese of St. Louis has taken the unusual step of reaching out to potential victims of an allegedly sexually abusive priest who has been dead for nearly a half-century.

The Rev. John Wieberg was 32 when he was ordained in 1918 and served as pastor at parishes in Advance, Charleston and Arcadia in southern Missouri, and Josephville in St. Charles County, before retiring in 1961. He died in 1963.

Five people have come forward over the past few years alleging abuse that happened from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s, Phil Hengen, director of the archdiocesan office of Child and Youth Protection, said Monday. The archdiocesan Review Board also heard from relatives of a sixth person. The board deemed the allegations credible.

"We still don't know the possible extent of the problem," Hengen said. "Sometimes folks have to get the courage up to come forward with something they've been sitting on for many, many years because of shame and embarrassment."

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Archdiocese officials don't normally make announcements about allegedly abusive priests who have died because the priest can't defend himself. But Archbishop Robert Carlson said he wants to give any other potential abuse victims the chance to come forward.

"Even though Fr. Wieberg cannot respond to the allegations, I have a moral obligation to others who may have been abused to assist them with their healing," Carlson said in a statement.

A letter from Carlson was read at St. Joseph parish in Josephville during Mass on March 12-13. Similar letters from Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau Bishop James Johnston Jr. were read this weekend at the parishes in Advance and Charleston, diocese spokeswoman Recy Moore said. The Arcadia parish no longer exists.

In his letter to the Josephville parish, Carlson apologized to abuse victim. He said the 17-member Review Board, made up of priests, deacons and lay people, including law enforcement and mental health professionals, concluded the allegations from the early 1960s were "serious and credible."

Wieberg began his career as an assistant pastor at Perpetual Help parish in St. Louis in 1919. That parish is now closed.

He served as pastor at St. Joseph parish in Advance from 1925 to 1930, at St. Henry parish in Charleston from 1930 to 1948, at St. Joseph parish in Arcadia from 1948 to 1950, and at St. Joseph parish in Josephville from 1950 to 1961.

Hengen said there have been other cases where credible sexual abuse allegations have been made against dead priests from the archdiocese. Though the allegations were not made public, Hengen said assistance for healing — primarily payment for counseling — was provided, and the victims were urged to encourage others who may have been abused to come forward.

"Because in this case there were reported to be additional victims from so long ago, we believed that we had an obligation to reach out, and the archbishop agreed with that," Hengen said.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he has worked with a man, now 80, who said he was abused by Wieberg in Charleston seven decades ago.

Clohessy said elderly people often come forward to his group and church officials about abuse that happened when they were children.

"Victims coming forward decades later is not unusual, but it is unusual for church officials to make an admission," Clohessy said.

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