By Mindy Ragan Wood
Details have emerged regarding a priest who ministered at a local Catholic church and was banned from ministry due to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Ben Zoeller was ordained in 1965 and served at St. John Nepomuk in Yukon from 1996 to 2001. Zoeller was removed as a priest in 2002 and laicized in 2011 by the pope which stripped him of his priestly privileges and status as a minister.
The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley released 10 additional names included in a report compiled by McAfee & Taft, a law firm that specializes in corporate and institutional investigations. Coakley requested a non-Catholic lawyer lead the investigation.
The files were only shared with attorneys who conducted the investigative review.
The Archdiocese hired the law firm to investigate and review the Archdiocese’s past handling of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests, the report states.
The investigative team had access to more than 500 files clergy files from
1960 to 2018.
Law firm investigators reviewed documents in Zoeller’s file.
An anonymous letter reached the Archdiocese in May 1988 which claimed the priest had abused two boys. Archbishop Charles Salatka asked Father Thomas Boyer to investigate the claims.
The first boy was a student at Bishop McGuinness but he did not confirm the allegation. However, Boyer interviewed the student’s caregivers and his school counselor but did not interview the child as he had promised.
The firm interviewed then counselor, David Morton, but he could not remember details from the allegations or the name of the priest.
A memo written by Boyer complained that while Morton told him that someone informed him of Zoeller having a sexual relationship with several students, Morton refused to identify the source of his information.
Morton told investigators he immediately referred the matter to Steve Parsons who was then principal of the school, but Parsons refused to speak to the firm and referred them back to Morton.
“When we (law firm investigators) interviewed Fr. Boyer, he said he was frustrated that Mr. Morton refused to disclose the source’s name because it ‘threw up a brick wall’ that prevented further investigation,” the report states.
The second boy also denied any sexual contact, but he told the firm’s investigators he stopped “spending time” with his priest after he claimed Zoeller gave him alcohol and asked to wrestle in a hotel room during an overnight stay out of town. The boy refused.
A third boy lived with Zoeller after Zoeller was given permission by Salatka on December 24, 1990. The firm’s report states there was no evidence that Salatka followed up on a 1991 and 1993 letter which complained that Zoeller shared a hotel room on an out of town trip with a 14-year-old boy. Salatka sent him to a church hospital for an “evaluation,” and he was allowed to return to ministry.
By September 1998, the third boy reported that Zoeller “engaged in sexual behavior” with him on one occasion when he was age 16. Father Edward Weisenburger, V. G. sent a memo to Archbishop Eusebius Beltran. Further memos showed that the boy reported he was fighting a drug addiction at the time and Zoeller gave him alcohol when the abuse occurred. Beltran confronted Zoeller who admitted the allegation in October 1998.
Beltran again sent Zoeller to a church hospital “for an evaluation” and if he “received a good evaluation” Beltran would “consider this a closed matter,” the firm’s finding shows. Zoeller admitted to the allegations at the hospital but denied all sexual abuse allegations with other minors. He was allowed to return to ministry, then at St. John Nepomuk Church in Yukon.
More complaints followed however on July 2, 2001 when a parishioner complained Zoeller “inappropriately touched their 18-year-old son at a public event held at the parish.” The parents accused Zoeller of caressing their son’s face and his leg.
The parents also reported the priest was holding meetings for young men who were considering seminary.
Two weeks later, Beltran and Weisenberger met with Zoeller but Zoeller denied it. Beltran told Zoeller not to have any more contact with the family and forbid him to entertain any young men at the rectory.
Two days after their meeting, Zoeller asked Beltran to allow him to retire from active “duty as a priest,” the firm’s report states. He retired in November 2001, but a month later was holding church services in his home where a witness claimed Zoeller was “counseling young men,” the firm’s report states.
“Fr. Weisenburger wrote that Archbishop Beltran had the right to issue a personnel precept forbidding him from counseling or having contact with adolescents”. Weisenburger further wrote, “I regret this matter continues to spiral out of control, but I think we need to address it before any damage is done,” the firm noted in its report.
Beltran officially forbid Zoeller from holding church services out of his home and was informed he could not have “unsupervised contact with young men,” the report states.
In May 2002, Zoeller asked Beltran “that his faculties be revoked” and Beltran suspended them four days later.
Yet another allegation came to light when someone claimed his brother had been sexually abused when he was a minor on two occasions. Weisenburger wrote a memo detailing the allegation “for Zoeller’s priest file” to document the claim. By Feb. 20, 2006 Zoeller admitted to the “incident of sexual contact” but claimed it happened after the boy had “turned 18-years-old,” the firm’s finding shows.
Zoeller was laicized in 2011.
By August 2018, the victim contacted the Archdiocese stating he was abused by Zoeller as a teenage boy. The report states the Archdiocese issued a statement that same month announcing Zoeller was volunteering at a “South Oklahoma City parish,” but the Archdiocese had not been made aware of it. He was then banned from volunteering. The church had not run Zoeller through a background check as required by the Archdiocese policies.
“However, multiple Archdiocese officials told us that even if a background check had been run, short of Zoeller self-disclosing the prior accusations against him, he likely would have passed the background check,” the firm’s report states. “This is because the Archdiocese had not publicized his history of misconduct or the circumstances for his laicization in 2011.”
The Archdiocese received a new allegation in November 2018 from a man who said that Zoeller abused him while he was a teenager in the early 1970s. A final allegation reached the Archdiocese on Oct. 3, 2019 that Zoeller had abused the boy who lived with him in the rectory in 1990.