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Attorney General’s inquiry leads to sex abuse charges against retired Missouri priest

Attorney General’s inquiry leads to sex abuse charges against retired Missouri priest

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A retired southeast Missouri priest charged with sexually abusing a teen 20 years ago is the first to be prosecuted in connection with a yearlong investigation by the Missouri Attorney General’s office into sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

At least 11 other cases have been referred to county prosecutors, said Chris Nuelle, with the attorney general’s office.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis said Monday that the archdiocese could not confirm whether any former priests here were included in Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s referrals.

Schmitt began the referrals in November, following a yearlong statewide review of church records dating to 1945 that reported 163 former clergy had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.

Those referrals were completed by February, Nuelle said Monday. It was unclear whether St. Louis area prosecutors had received any such referrals; Nuelle declined to confirm where referrals were sent until local prosecutors decide whether to file charges.

Schmitt’s report did not name the clergy nor include details that would identify locations of the alleged abuse.

A referral to Stoddard County on Jan. 2 led to the arrest last week of Frederick Joseph Lutz, 76, of Springfield, Missouri. The arrest was in connection with allegations Schmitt’s office found in church records that Lutz had forcibly sexually abused a teenage boy in early 2000 while a priest at St. Joseph Parish in Advance, Missouri.

Lutz, a priest who served several cities in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau before retiring in 2011, was charged Feb. 19 with forcible sodomy, two counts of statutory sodomy in the second degree and felony sexual abuse in connection with the case. Charging documents also detail a 2006 allegation that Lutz sexually abused a teen in 1972 in Cape Girardeau.

“While this may not provide much solace to victims,” Schmitt said in a written statement, “these charges represent the next crucial steps in holding abusers accountable for their actions.”

Schmitt’s report came little more than a year after his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, announced his office would review records from all four Catholic Church dioceses in Missouri in the wake of a Pennsylvania grand jury report. The Pennsylvania report, issued in August 2017, detailed abuse of more than 1,000 people by hundreds of priests in the state. Soon after, the Archdiocese of St. Louis invited Hawley to review its records.

Of the clergy identified in Schmitt’s 329-page report, 83 are dead. Forty-six of the remaining 80 could not be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations, Schmitt said.

The report found church officials had refused to acknowledge reports of abuse or misconduct, and it had reassigned accused priests without informing law enforcement or parishioners.

While the Springfield diocese publicly named Lutz in 2018 as one of several former priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, it only revealed an allegation that Lutz abused a child in the early 1970s.

Leslie Eidson, a spokeswoman for the Springfield diocese, said church officials had reported allegations against Lutz to Stoddard County prosecutors as early as 2006.

“The diocese will cooperate fully in any investigation Stoddard County would like to pursue, that’s always been our position,” she said.

The diocese gave Schmitt’s office full access to its clerical records, Eidson said. Lutz was one of three former clergy there whose cases Schmitt referred to local prosecutors, she said.

But Stoddard County Prosecutor Russell Oliver said there was no record that the allegations were reported and that church officials had declined to participate in the January investigation into Lutz. He said anyone who wanted to report abuse by Lutz should contact the Stoddard County Prosecutor’s Office at 573-568-4640.

Lutz has pleaded not guilty, his attorney Curtis Poore said. “I’m not going to get into the specifics of the allegations other than that Father Lutz vehemently denies any inappropriate conduct,” Poore said.

All four Missouri dioceses published lists in recent years of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has named 63 clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, and three who possessed child pornography. Twenty-six clergy identified in the St. Louis list released last year had never been publicly reported to have been accused of abuse, according to a Post-Dispatch review.

The review by Schmitt’s office was criticized by attorneys and activists representing survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy, who said they did not trust church officials to be fully transparent.

David Clohessy, with the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said Monday he was happy to see charges filed but that a more aggressive investigation would uncover more cases.

“Of course it’s good when predators are charged,” Clohessy said. “But let’s be blunt — AG staffers looked at records that fell into their laps, did some subtraction to see which cases could still be prosecuted, made a note and sent it on to another prosecutor.”

“It raises the question,” he said, “of how many other predator priests remain completely unsupervised and under the radar because church officials either didn’t record or retain criminal evidence.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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