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SMITHTON • The priest at St. John the Baptist parish in Smithton abruptly took a leave of absence last week to address "very serious personal, pastoral and legal challenges," according to a letter circulated by the Belleville Diocese.

The letter, obtained by the Post-Dispatch, said the Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger spoke with Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton and agreed the temporary leave was necessary. The letter, sent to priests and deacons, didn't directly state the source of the challenges.

"In the present climate, it is important for you to know that the serious matters we are addressing do not involve the abuse of a minor," wrote the Rev. John McEvilly, the diocese's vicar general.

It added: "It will probably be several months before it can be determined when or if Father Hechenberger will be able to return to parish ministry."

McEvilly didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Smithton Police said they aren't aware of any criminal matters.