Suspended New Orleans deacon pleads guilty to molesting preteen boy

— VM Wheeler, 64, admits indecent behavior with juvenile in latest twist to Catholic church’s molestation scandal

This 2012 file photo shows a silhouette of a crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic church in New Orleans.

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

The clerical molestation scandal that for decades has engulfed the Roman Catholic church in New Orleans took another turn on Tuesday, when a suspended deacon pleaded guilty to charges that he sexually abused a preteen boy two decades earlier, before the defendant’s ordination as a clergy member.

Virgil Maxey “VM” Wheeler III, 64, pleaded guilty to four charges of indecent behavior with a juvenile filed against him in state court in Jefferson parish, which neighbors New Orleans. He agreed to serve five years of probation in exchange for that plea, avoid contact with the victim for the rest of his life and register as a sex offender for 15 years, court records show.

Meanwhile, prosecutors dismissed charges of sexual battery of a child younger than 13 that they had initially leveled against him. The dismissed charges could have carried 10 years in prison if he had been convicted, based on Louisiana law in effect at the time of the admitted abuse.

Court documents spelling out Wheeler’s plea noted that the abuse occurred between 2000 and 2002.

Despite Tuesday’s plea, Wheeler is still facing a civil lawsuit demanding damages for his now acknowledged victim.

That suit claims – among other assertions – that prominent local Catholics unsuccessfully mounted a pressure campaign to get the victim to abandon his allegations against Wheeler, who was also a well-known attorney in the area, including an offer of $400,000 for the victim to stop cooperating with law enforcement officials.

Wheeler was once friends with the family of his accuser, whose identity is known but has not been published in news reports because media outlets do not name victims of sexual abuse without their permission.

The unresolved civil lawsuit alleges that the victim’s mother – knowing Wheeler dreamed of becoming a deacon – had reported to local church officials years ago that Wheeler had tried to coax the victim and the victim’s brother into bed during a ski trip when the victim was 12.

Nonetheless, church officials have maintained that the victim did not fully disclose details of his abuse at the hands of Wheeler until the summer of 2020. The New Orleans church by then had ordained Wheeler as one of its deacons, who are similar to priests, though they can join the clergy despite being married.

But the victim’s report against Wheeler prompted New Orleans’s archbishop, Gregory Aymond, to suspend Wheeler from his work as a deacon at a church in a suburban part of the city. Prosecutors in Jefferson parish charged Wheeler late last year. He declared himself not guilty at first but reversed himself Tuesday.

The victim on Tuesday read a statement in court that in part discussed how his pursuit of justice demonstrated how “you can turn pain into power”.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the New Orleans archdiocese would add Wheeler to a list of clerics who have worked – or were ordained – locally and have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults.

Aymond’s initial release of that list in 2018 – the same year as Wheeler’s ordination – led to a wave of lawsuits against the church, which has since filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The list’s release was meant as an act of transparency aimed at parishioners who had lost faith amid new revelations at the time linked to the global church’s clerical abuse crisis, dating back decades.

Last week, the Guardian was first to report that one of the claims filed as part of the bankruptcy case was from a former New Orleans seminarian who in the 1990s alleged that he was harassed at a local college which trains priests, including by Aymond, who was the school’s rector at the time. Aymond vehemently denies the claim.

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