Monday, December 16, 2002

Priest removed in Louisville


Allegations of abuse increase

By Deborah Yetter
The Courier-Journal

The Rev. John Baptist Ormechea has been removed as pastor of St. Agnes Church in Louisville over allegations by four men that he sexually abused them as boys at a Chicago parish between 1978 and 1981.

Members of the parish of about 3,650 people on Newburg Road received the news Saturday in a letter from Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, who said he has accepted Fr. Ormechea's resignation and that the priest is to refrain from ministry.

The news also was announced at a Mass at St. Agnes Saturday by the Rev. Michael Higgins, the provincial, or leader, of the Passionist religious order in Chicago. Fr. Ormechea is a member of the Passionist order, which operates St. Agnes and supplies its priests.

''Today I am deeply saddened to have to bring you news of allegations made against Father John Baptist,'' Fr. Higgins told the somber crowd.

The news has stunned members of the parish where Fr. Ormechea has served without any hint of impropriety, said parish council president Glenn Kosse.

Fr. Ormechea was not available for comment. The priest left the parish Friday after meeting with Fr. Higgins. He was escorted by another Passionist priest, the provincial said.

Parishioner Jim Wayne said he was told Fr. Ormechea was ''in seclusion'' when he attempted to reach him at the Passionist monastery in Chicago.

Known as ''Father J.B.," Ormechea was a popular figure in the parish. Members said Saturday they are struggling to absorb the news.

''It's just been a real shock,'' said Marlene Wolf, a retired teacher from St. Agnes elementary school. ''I just find it almost impossible to believe."

Fr. Ormechea was asked to resign Friday after church officials got results of an investigation by prosecutors in Chicago who had been looking into allegations Fr. Ormechea sexually abused boys while he was assigned to Immaculate Conception parish there.

Prosecutors would have brought criminal charges, but time had expired to prosecute under Illinois' statute of limitations, said Harry Rothgerber, first assistant commonwealth's attorney for Jefferson County. Mr. Rothgerber said his office and the Cook County state's attorney's office have been sharing information since the investigation began earlier this year.

Mr. Rothgerber said the Cook County "prosecutor told me that all the individuals they interviewed were very credible and that they would have proceeded with prosecution if the statute of limitations had not run out."

Mr. Rothgerber also said there have been no allegations of any misconduct by Fr. Ormechea at St. Agnes.

But Mr. Rothgerber said he believed it was important for church officials to act quickly once they received the report from Chicago Thursday.

"The potential for sexual abuse scared us," Mr. Rothgerber said.

According to a three-page letter from the Cook County prosecutor's office that summarized the investigation, four men alleged they were abused as children by Fr. Ormechea while he was pastor at Immaculate Conception. The Dec. 11 letter was sent to Fr. Higgins, who forwarded it to Bishop Kelly.

The investigation was prompted by an allegation by Timothy Nockels, 36, a Chicago stockbroker, according to a copy of the letter Mr. Rothgerber provided The Courier-Journal.

While Mr. Nockels has not filed suit over the alleged abuse, he has agreed to be identified by name, according to Joan Wilson, his sister.

"We have no shame or nothing to hide. The veil of secrecy has hurt other people and hurt our church,'' said Ms. Wilson, an attorney in Alaska who is acting as spokeswoman for her brother.

Mr. Nockels reported Fr. Ormechea had become a close friend of his family and visited their home several times a week for dinner around the time Mr. Nockels was 11 or 12 and in the 6th or 7th grade.

After dinner, Mr. Nockels alleged, Fr. Ormechea would visit his room on the pretext of saying good night and would sexually abuse him, the letter said. Mr. Nockels, in a sworn affidavit supplied to investigators, said he can't forget the groans Fr. Ormechea would make while abusing him.

"That noise will haunt me the rest of my life," Mr. Nockels said in the affidavit.

He ends the affidavit by asking investigators to protect other children.

"If you do one thing, stop Ormechea," it said. "Get him away from kids."

Mr. Rothgerber said he talked with Mr. Nockels by telephone Friday. When he told Mr. Nockels Fr. Ormechea was to be removed, Mr. Rothgerber said, Mr. Nockels broke down in tears.

"He was so grateful the archdiocese acted so quickly," Mr. Rothgerber said.

The Chicago prosecutor's letter said investigators located three other men who gave similar accounts but did not wish to be identified by name. One alleged he was abused as a freshman and sophomore in high school; another while he was in grade school; and the third, during his freshman year in high school.

All alleged Fr. Ormechea abused them after visiting their homes for dinner and finding a pretext to go into the boys' bedrooms. One of the three alleged Fr. Ormechea performed oral sex on him and had the boy perform oral sex on the priest.

Fr. Higgins Saturday told parishioners he had not yet met with Mr. Nockels, but hoped to do so on returning to Chicago. He said he wants to make sure Mr. Nockels is receiving all possible assistance and support.

"I will be in contact with him and his family and I hope to be able to hear the story firsthand," Fr. Higgins said.

Mr. Nockels' father, Walter Nockels, a retired Chicago firefighter, also supplied an affidavit to investigators in which he said he was sickened and dismayed to learn of the alleged abuse.

"We came to respect each other and became fast friends," Walter Nockels said of Fr. Ormechea, his former parish priest. "Father John was regularly invited to our home for dinner."

Fr. Higgins told St. Agnes parishioners the Passionists' commitment is to protect families.

"It is vitally important to us to make sure this church is a safe place for all of its members, especially our children,'' he said.

Jay Reeves, who was married at St. Agnes by Fr. Ormechea, said after Saturday's service that he is angry about the revelations and frustrated by the church's failure to deal with sexual abuse by clergy.

"I'm done. I'm finished,'' he said of the Catholic Church, "unless something can be done to make this right.''

Fr. Ormechea is the ninth priest from the Louisville archdiocese to be removed from public ministry by Bishop Kelly since July under new, tougher policies adopted by the nation's bishops to deal with priests involved in sexual abuse cases.

Two hundred civil suits have been filed against the archdiocese, alleging sexual abuse involving 26 priests or others connected with the archdiocese.



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