Priest relieved of duties because of abuse claim

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Vicki Moldenhauer, full-time Cape Girardeau firefighter and part-time flight paramedic for Air Evac Lifeteam, posed Sunday at the St. Francis Medical Center hangar.By Laura Johnston ~ Southeast Missourian

A priest assigned to several Southeast Missouri parishes for 30 years was removed from his job this month because of sexual abuse allegations made nearly two decades ago.

The Rev. Amel Shibley was accused of inappropriate conduct while serving as pastor at St. Francis Xavier Church in Sikeston, Mo. He served there from 1976-1992. He also served as pastor of St. Ann's parish in Malden and St. Eustachius in Portageville before he went to Sikeston.

Shibley is living in Cape Girardeau and was relieved of his duties March 3. He said he didn't have anything to say about the accusations and declined to be interviewed by the Southeast Missourian at his home Tuesday.

He was one of three priests in the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese who have been accused of sexual abuse of children. Their names were released Tuesday. Other priests accused were the Rev. Leonard Chambers of Joplin, Mo., and the Rev. Larry Gregovich of Salem, Mo.

Chambers served as an associate pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral from 1968 to 1969.

All three priests have retired and can no longer celebrate Mass or serve as pastors, though they remain ordained and retain their title.

In 30 years, the diocese has investigated only these three cases, said Marilyn Vydra, diocese spokeswoman. "We're not saying that's great," but there are no other cases under investigation, she said.

All three men admitted guilt after being confronted by the bishop with the accusations, she said.

No information was given about the victims, who asked to remain anonymous, or their ages at the times of the abuse.

Occurred around 1982

Vydra said Shibley's victim likely was abused sometime around 1982 but didn't alert any church officials until 1995.

Two of the priests' victims received counseling and a third received a monetary settlement from the diocese. None of the money paid was from diocese operating funds, Vydra said.

Unless the victims come forward, no criminal charges will be filed in any of the cases, she said.

These cases of abuse came to public attention after a letter from Bishop John J. Leibrecht was read following Mass Sunday. (See letter text)

The letter was meant to assure parishioners that no priest accused of sexual abuse of children is currently serving as a pastor in the diocese. It did not identify any of the men by name.

Before writing the letter, the bishop had to strip Shibley of his duties as pastor in Fredericktown, Mo. At the bishop's request, he had been filling in part-time at St. Michael parish since 1997.

Vydra said Leibrecht asked Shibley to retire in 1995 once the bishop learned of the allegations. At the time, Shibley was serving as priest at St. Lawrence parish in New Hamburg, Mo. But Shibley moved out of state and returned a year later, only to be asked to help fill in during a priest shortage in the diocese.

After what happened in Boston, where more than 130 people have come forward saying they were sexually abused by a priest, Leibrecht felt it necessary to tell parishioners about the diocese's policy regarding sexual abuse allegations, Vydra said.

Authority rarely exercised

The two other men accused of sexual abuse already had been stripped of their duties. Rarely does a bishop exercise such authority, Vydra said.

If any abuse allegations would be made now, the accused priest would be removed from his job immediately and not asked to serve in any capacity within a parish, Vydra said. Some would receive treatment and then possibly be reassigned to other duties.

That happened to Chambers. He was asked to retire in 1998 after he violated an order of the bishop related to an earlier abuse allegation.

Chambers was accused of abuse in the 1980s when he served as pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Springfield, Mo. He was sent away for 10 months of treatment and returned to Missouri in 1983. Cardinal Bernard Law, then bishop here, reassigned Chambers to parish duties.

Law, now archbishop in Boston, is under pressure to resign after he admitted transferring priests to different parishes after they had been accused of sexual abuse.

Leibrecht became bishop in 1984 after Law was appointed to serve in Boston. The bishop imposed a restriction on Chambers ordering him to never be alone with a child. That order was violated in 1998, and Chambers retired.

Gregovich, the third accused priest, retired in 1992 and is now living in Carthage, Mo. None of the priests has been defrocked. Only the Vatican can defrock a priest, but the bishop has the authority to remove them of their duties as a priest, Vydra said.

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