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O.C. Diocese Took Priest with Known Sex Problem

The Rev. Sigfried Widera was undergoing counseling when transferred from Milwaukee.

By Valeria Godines and Bill Rams
The Orange County Register
April 11, 2002

The first evidence was uncovered Wednesday that the Diocese of Orange accepted from another archdiocese the transfer of a priest with a known sexual problem.

The Rev. Sigfried Widera, who was undergoing counseling at the time of his transfer from Milwaukee, faced at least six allegations of sexual abuse in Orange County after he arrived here in 1976.

One accuser, Christopher Huicochea, now a 32-year-old Anaheim man who teaches English, filed a report with the Anaheim Police Department on Saturday. He alleges that Widera fondled him at home when he was 10 - just weeks after Widera delivered the Mass at his father's funeral.

The Diocese of Orange removed Widera, a beloved motorcycle-riding priest who used the CB radio moniker "German Shepherd," in 1985 after it was notified by Child Protective Services that he was suspected of having abused children.

The Orange County revelations come during a 48-hour period in which church officials up and down the state grappled with new cases or developments involving priest-abuse allegations. In San Francisco, a priest accused of attacking a news photographer covering his rape trial was jailed.

A priest in a Franciscan seminary in Santa Ynez was removed after being accused of grabbing boys' genitals during wrestling matches he orchestrated while teaching high school in La Cañada Flintridge.

And the Diocese of Orange this week received another sexual misconduct allegation against Monsignor Lawrence Baird, who has adamantly denied the accusations. Church officials say they have invited the latest accuser to come forward and discuss it with them but the caller has not yet responded.

The old Widera files surfaced when the Orange Diocese officials pored over personnel records Wednesday in response to requests by The Orange County Register.

Widera was never charged with a crime in Orange County, and it is unclear whether Child Protective Services or the diocese reported the allegations to law enforcement at the time. Debbie Kroner, spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said she cannot legally comment on child-abuse cases. Generally, she said, substantiated complaints are referred to local police for investigation.

Widera, who parishioners say liked to give their children rides on his motorcycle and play basketball with them, could not be reached for comment. One relative defended him.

"This is ridiculous," said Leslie Widera, his sister-in- law, of Costa Mesa. "Everyone is coming forward with stories. They think they'll make millions. It is totally absurd."

Widera described her brother-in-law as very caring. "He's wonderful. They all loved him," she said. "I think it's total insane and ridiculous. I don't see any proof."

The Diocese of Orange said it removed Widera swiftly in 1985 as soon as it became aware that he was suspected of sexually abusing children here. The diocese sent Widera for therapy for one year in New Mexico.

The late Bishop William Johnson agreed to admit him into the diocese in 1976 even though he knew of his past problems according to the diocese correspondence. The late Bishop William Cousins at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee told Johnson that Widera had been undergoing treatment and Widera was transferring to a doctor in California where he had family. Cousins assured Johnson that Widera would pose no great risk.

"Today, if such a request were to be made by any archdiocese, the priest would not be admitted to pastoral work in the Diocese of Orange," Bishop Tod Brown said in a prepared statement. "While the acceptance of a priest undergoing treatment was considered acceptable then, it is not today, and we regret any pain that may have been caused by accepting Widera in 1976."

Diocese officials said they didn't know more details about the nature of any allegations against Widera in Milwaukee.

Huicochea said he was saddened by the latest allegations but felt validated.

"It has angered me that the church has protected these people and has not given due process to these people who have done these crimes," he said. "I don't want to say everybody in the church is bad. ... It is unbelievable that they would protect this kind of behavior.

"I don't want anybody to experience what I went through. I am not doing this because I want to see the church go down. I just want to see things change."

Widera served as a priest at St. Justin Martyr Church in Anaheim, where Huicochea's mother still works and attends.

Carol Preimesberger, a former parishioner, described Widera as a close friend she had over to her Anaheim home numerous times to play the card game Shiphead.

"We're from Wisconsin, and so is he," she said. "He was one of few people we knew who could actually play."

Her children, two sons, an adoptive son and a daughter, also thought highly of him, Preimesberger said. "He rode a motorcycle and took my children on rides around the block," she said. "The kids thought it was really cool. He never did anything inappropriate. He was nothing but a kind person."

"There are certain priests I've had concerns about," said Preimesberger, a parishioner for 25 years. "But not him. Never. No way."

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