Former Oklahoma priest, accused of abuse in 1980s, banned from volunteer work at metro parish

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City said Thursday night that a former priest, accused of sexual abuse dating back to the 1980s, was actively volunteering at a metro parish.

According to a press release, the archdiocese told Ben Zoeller he is not allowed to volunteer or work at any parish or church-associated entity, including Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2706 S. Shartel Ave., where Zoeller volunteered once a week.

“This situation is exactly why we now communicate with our priests, deacons, parishioners and the public about confirmed cases of abuse,” Archbishop Paul Coakley said in a 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 has not been arrested or charged with a crime. When a reporter went to Zoeller’s home Wednesday, Zoeller declined to comment and shut the door.

The archdiocese is reviewing Zoeller’s history, spanning nearly 40 years in eight parishes, after a former Oklahoma resident wrote the church, alleging Zoeller abused him twice in 1985. Zoeller was removed as a priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in 2002 and defrocked in 2011.

“I’m very doubtful I’m his only victim and I just want to make sure there’s a complete and thorough investigation,” said the former resident in a phone interview from his home in Minnesota. News 4 does not identify people who say they’re the victim of sexual abuse.

The archdiocese said it was contacted in 2006 by the man’s brother reporting Zoeller’s alleged abuse, several years after Zoeller was asked to leave.

“What was it that prompted you to write the letter to the archdiocese of Oklahoma City?”

“It’s something that I’ve written in my head a thousand times since this happened,” he said of the abuse he says happened at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Oklahoma City. “But I think the final straw was the report that was released from the Pennsylvania attorney general.”

The Pennsylvania grand jury report released last week detailed a two-year investigation of the state’s six dioceses. It found systemic abuse and elaborate, deliberate coverup of that abuse by more than 300 priests, 1,000 victims and spanning more than 70 years.

“It seems that the church is very good about offering their thoughts and prayers and nothing else,” the man said.

“We want to know,” said Archdiocese of Oklahoma City Communications Director Diane Clay. “Even if it happened in the past, it’s important that we track the scope of what’s gone on.”

Clay said after receiving the man’s letter, Coakley ordered a review of Zoeller’s file, “found credible allegations of abuse” and ordered an independent investigation. Clay said Thursday it will likely be several days before more information is released about its investigation into Zoeller.

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.

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. It’s not known why the archdiocese asked Zoeller to leave.

Clay said the archdiocese was already in the process of reviewing its own clergy abuse allegations in the wake of "credible" accusations against U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. McCarrick, 88, was accused of sexually abusing boys and engaging in sexual misconduct with adult seminarians for years. He resigned and was stripped of his title by Pope Francis last month and ordered to a “life of prayer and penance” ahead of a church trial.

After the McCarrick scandal, Clay said the Oklahoma City archdiocese started reviewing all instances of clergy abuse allegations in its 108 parishes and missions. Now the Pennsylvania grand jury report and letter from the former Oklahoma resident has spurred its own investigation.

“It’s a very courageous thing to do and we’re glad that he did that and its help to start all of this in motion, even more than what we were doing before,” said Clay. “We’re also going through all of the former files and will have a report at the end of that, just to make sure something wasn’t missed – or that there’s something else we may need to do, because we want to know in case there’s something that needs to be done.”

Clay said that means more transparency from the church, moving forward. Something the man said he’s hoping for, more than 30 years later.

“Definitely more light needs to be brought on him and appropriate action taken,” the man said. “I’d like to know the whole history of what’s been reported, to whom, and who knew about it and what action did they take?”

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.