Oklahoma City Archdiocese investigating recent clergy abuse claim dating back to 1980s

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is investigating a report of alleged abuse dating back more than three decades involving a former priest defrocked by the pope in 2011.

Archdiocese officials said Wednesday the Archbishop has ordered an independent investigation of former priest Ben Zoeller, who served in eight parishes in Oklahoma since the 1960s.

According to an archdiocese spokeswoman, a letter August 17 was sent by a former resident reporting abuse at the hands of Zoeller in 1985.

Archbishop Paul Coakley ordered a review of Zoeller’s file, which “found credible allegations of abuse” and ordered an independent investigation, the spokeswoman said.

Zoeller was removed as a priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in 2002 and defrocked in 2011.

The Archdiocese said it has reported the abuse allegation to the Oklahoma Attorney General and the Oklahoma County District Attorney. Zoeller has not been arrested or charged with a crime. When a reporter went to Zoeller’s home Wednesday evening, Zoeller declined to comment and shut the door.

Church: Abuse previously reported

The Archdiocese said it was contacted by the alleged victim’s brother in 2006, reporting Zoeller’s abuse. The brother was referred to the vicar general and a victim assistance coordinator, and spoke by phone with then-Archbishop Eusebius Beltran, “who apologized for the crimes committed by Zoeller and offered to fund counseling in his brother’s current state of residence, if desired.”

Coakley apologized for the abuse suffered at the hands of a former priest and asked the archdiocese to contact the former resident to help him with any lasting effects from the abuse.

Zoeller was ordained in 1965 and served as an associate pastor in three of his four first parishes: Church of St. Mary in Tulsa, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Norman, St. Rose of Lima in Watonga and the Oklahoma City Cathedral Our Lady of Perpetual Help, according to church officials.

Zoeller was pastor of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Moore from 1974-1984, spent one year at St. Eugene in Weatherford, and returned to Oklahoma City in 1985, according to an archdiocesan official. He served at St. Patrick’s Church from 1985 to 1996 until he served in his last parish, St. John Nepomuk in Yukon, from 1996-2001.

Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Director of Communications Diane Clay said Wednesday afternoon it cannot say how far back the abuse allegations go, or if there are other cases.

“That’s one of the things we’re investigating,” Clay said when reached by phone Wednesday evening.

The Archdiocese said Zoeller was asked to leave the church in 2001, removed in 2002 and laicized, or defrocked, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.

To report abuse that occurred in the past or present, call the Abuse of Minors Pastoral Response Hotline at (405) 720-9878. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has established a statewide abuse reporting hotline at (800) 522-3511.