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Defrocked priest had been volunteering at south Oklahoma City church

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'Credible accusations' led to removal of priest, archdiocese says

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Local Catholic leaders will publicize a list of names of priests who are credibly accused of abuse, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City said Friday.

With such a list posted on the archdiocese's website, a defrocked priest like Benjamin Zoeller likely would have been prevented from volunteering at a local parish.

That is the hope of archdiocese leaders who learned that Zoeller was volunteering at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2706 S Shartel, when a staff member at the church called on Thursday to tell them about it.

"As soon as we received the call, we contacted the pastor and others to make them aware of his background and that he is not to volunteer or work at a parish or any archdiocesan entity," archdiocese spokeswoman Diane Clay said.

Clay said Zoeller was removed as a priest with the archdiocese in 2002 because "credible accusations of abuse" were made against him. She said he was laicized or formally relieved of his priestly rights and duties in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley asked for a review of Zoeller's file after receiving an Aug. 17 letter from a Minnesota man who said he had been sexually molested by Zoeller in the 1980s when Zoeller was a priest at an Oklahoma City parish. Clay said Coakley also called for an independent investigation into the matter.

The Minnesota man said Zoeller sexually molested him when he was a 16-year-old parishioner at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 2121 N Portland.

Friday, the Minnesota man said he was shocked to learn that the archdiocese continued to allow Zoeller to volunteer at one of its churches though he had been removed from the priesthood because of abuse allegations.

The man said his brother first contacted the archdiocese about the alleged abuse by Zoeller in 2006.

"Clearly there is a need for the church to report these monsters to the authorities so communities can be properly notified," the man said in an email to The Oklahoman.

According to the archdiocese's statement, Coakley asked the archdiocese's vicar general on Thursday to ban Zoeller from volunteering or working at any parish or archdiocesan affiliate. The vicar general, the Rev. William Novak, also notified the pastor of Sacred Heart and all pastors and deacons in the archdiocese about the ban. A reporter requesting to speak with a Sacred Heart priest about the matter was directed to call the archdiocese.

"This situation is exactly why we now communicate with our priests, deacons, parishioners and the public about confirmed cases of abuse," Coakley said in his statement. "Ben Zoeller should never have been allowed to volunteer or work in a parish. I have taken steps to prevent that from happening from today forward. I encourage anyone who has further knowledge about concerns with Zoeller to contact my office."

Zoeller, who is now in his 80s, has refrained from speaking to media outlets, including The Oklahoman.

Clay said most of the older priests in the diocese already knew Zoeller's background. She said a letter was sent through the mail in 2002 alerting priests in the archdiocese that he was no longer a priest and the process of getting him formally removed from the priesthood had begun.

She said many priests who came to the archdiocese after that time did not know about Zoeller.

"The problem is you have a whole new crop of priests who did not know. The current pastor of Sacred Heart had no idea of his (Zoeller's) background and he was already a volunteer when he (Sacred Heart's priest) got there," Clay said.

"Obviously that is something that we would certainly do differently. We plan to post this information from now on. Any priest who is found to have a credible allegation of abuse, we'' will have a list of that and we will put it on the website."

A member of a victims advocacy group said Friday it was unconscionable that Zoeller was allowed to volunteer.

"We are grateful that Archbishop Coakley has now taken decisive action to correct this dangerous situation. However, while it is true that Mr. Zoeller was removed from the priesthood before the archbishop began his tenure in Oklahoma City, we find it very hard to believe that Archbishop Coakley was not aware that a laicized priest was volunteering at a local parish," said Melanie Sakoda, volunteer secretary of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

"We know, based on the recent information out of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, that cover-ups are the rule, rather than the exception, in Catholic dioceses around the world."

In their statement on Thursday, archdiocese leaders said they have contacted the Oklahoma attorney general's office as well as the Oklahoma County district attorney's office regarding the allegations made by the Minnesota man in his letter.

Clay said prior to the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report outlining sordid details of priests sexually abusing minors, Coakley ordered a review of all archdiocese files regarding abuse allegations against priests going back 50 years.

She said Michael Scaperlanda, the archdiocese's chancellor, is working on that review and is set to share the report with Coakley as soon as it is complete.

"I'd like for people to know that we are doing this," said Clay.

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'Credible accusations' led to removal of priest, archdiocese says

To report abuse

Under Oklahoma law, all individuals must report an incident or suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor (person under age 18) to civil authorities.

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services' statewide abuse reporting hotline: 800-522-3511. 

Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›

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