Aftermath of a Priest's Suicide: Anguish -- and an Accusation of Abuse

By Christine Spolar
Washington Post
August 30, 1992

Behind the stone walls of St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church, the suicide of Monsignor William T. Reinecke has touched off some of the most troubling questions about a priest and his vocation.

Two weeks ago, the 53-year-old priest and longtime chancellor of the Diocese of Arlington killed himself with a shotgun. Fellow priests and parishioners searched for solace in churchwide counseling sessions, many blaming themselves for missing any hints Reinecke may have dropped about his private despair.

Then another report surfaced. Joe McDonald, a former altar boy from another parish, claimed that Reinecke molested him 25 years ago and said he had confronted the priest about it two days before Reinecke killed himself.

McDonald, now 39, told his story to The Washington Post and the Washington Times -- where it appeared last Wednesday -- after the diocese rebuffed his request to discuss Reinecke's death. On Friday, as Falls Church police encouraged anyone with a similar complaint to come forward, a representative of Bishop John R. Keating sought out McDonald.

"We don't want to suppress anything," said the Rev. Curtis Clark, Keating's spokesman. He said he and the Rev. Robert Rippy, the new chancellor, met with McDonald that afternoon to discuss the allegation, and asked him to swear on a Bible.

"Even today we are trying to figure out what to do," Clark said after the meeting. He said yesterday that diocesan officials are quietly asking parish groups to be alert for any further allegations and will ask mental health professionals to follow up.

McDonald, who wants the diocese to establish support groups for victims and priests, said no "concrete proposals" came out of his meeting with Clark and Rippy and was chagrined that they asked him to stop speaking out.

"I question their motivation, but any chance at dialogue is good," he said. McDonald is executive director of the Mental Health Association of Northern Virginia, a former chairman of the Falls Church Democratic Committee and a member of the executive board of Citizens for a Better City.

His claim about Reinecke is complicated by two facts: that the incident supposedly happened 25 years ago and that the man he accused is dead. McDonald has no witnesses and did not tell his parents at the time.

In the two years since Reinecke was appointed to St. James Parish, McDonald has told his wife, his sister, a couple of close friends and his employer about the incident, which he said occurred on a sightseeing trip to Williamsburg. McDonald said that although he believed he had overcome the trauma, he wanted to confront Reinecke because he feared that other children might be suffering similar encounters.

In separate interviews, all those people confirmed that McDonald told them about the incident. He told his parents, now in their seventies, after Reinecke's suicide.

The allegation also is complicated by another fact: The person in charge of investigating claims of pedophilia in the Arlington Diocese is the chancellor, second only to the bishop.

Reinecke held that job for 13 years.

His parishioners cannot believe that Reinecke is the priest McDonald describes.

Grace McAdams, a mother of four, nearly cries when she talks about Bill Reinecke. He was the neighbor who stopped by to lift her spirits when her husband was recovering from a serious head injury. He was the friend who found her at home one fall day, wiping away tears shed over yet another money problem, and handed her $ 400 to meet her bills. He was the priest who was as much buddy as father to her two youngest boys, now 11 and 16.

He was the one person McAdams trusted to take her sons anywhere.

Li McVoy spent about eight years in the 1980s organizing the dozens of altar boys who worked with the quiet priest whom she and her husband called "their third son." Reinecke, then at St. Ambrose Parish in Annandale, made fast friends with her family, played video games with her sons and took them to Manassas Civil War battlefields.

McVoy's sons, now 23 and 25, were altar boys.

Barbara Charron thought of Bill Reinecke as part of her family, a brood of nine children now ranging in age from 19 to 33. He was such a good listener, she said, a contemporary of hers who laughed well and thought deeply. He set a good example for her children, always preaching the value of reconciliation, the act of forgiveness central to Catholic faith.

Charron knew Reinecke for 13 years. Recently, she said, she knew he was depressed, and she had discussed it with his brothers, Ralph, of Vienna, and Patrick, of Williamsburg. Before Reinecke went on a retreat Aug. 10 to a Trappist monastery in Berryville, Va., she hugged him and handed him a jar of peanuts to munch on and a letter.

In the note, Charron reminded him of what he had told her when one of her children was being treated for Hodgkin's disease: "In God, who is the source of all strength, I have the strength for all things."

Charron, whose letter was found near Reinecke's body along with a photo of her family, has struggled to understand his suicide. She dismisses McDonald's claims with her memories: "All I know is the Bill Reinecke we knew. He never did anything inappropriate in our presence -- and he had ample opportunity," she said.

"I have no idea what's in his heart," McAdams said of McDonald. "Only God knows. But I'm sure you have skeletons in your closet. I'm sure I have some in mine. He who is without sin, cast the first stone."

"Ridiculous," McVoy said of McDonald's claims. "If something happened 25 years ago, why didn't he say something then? . . . I could spot a homosexual 40 feet away, and Monsignor never did a thing that could be misunderstood." Her 25-year-old son, Jens, sputtered angrily at the allegation.

"If he had been the person that Mr. McDonald said he was, he was not that person around us," Jens McVoy said. "I'm not saying it didn't happen, because I don't know. But nothing like that ever happened around me or any altar boy I know."

Sexual misconduct and allegations of sexual misconduct by priests are never easy topics for the Catholic Church.

The church had no policy about sexual abuse of children until five years ago, and now describes it as a serious but rare problem. This summer, however, the church publicly struggled with the admission by a former priest, James R. Porter, that he had sexually abused dozens of children while at three Massachusetts parishes in the 1960s.

Specialists, most notably former priest and psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, of Johns Hopkins Medical School, estimate that about 6 percent of the approximately 50,000 Roman Catholic priests in the United States have had sexual contacts with minors.

A diocese spokesman said Reinecke never was suspected of, nor counseled for, any impropriety during his 27-year vocation.

Reinecke was a well-known cleric in Northern Virginia. A priest since 1965, the Williamsburg native spent his life working at parishes in Alexandria, Arlington and Annandale before being appointed to St. James two years ago.

There, according to parishioners, Reinecke instituted a belt-tightening program that angered some parishioners. Some found his style autocratic and objected when he fired the youth minister and cut out youth workers at the rectory. When he painted and refurbished the rectory, some protested that the money should have been spent on the homeless.

But others welcomed Reinecke's no-nonsense style and sought his counsel. He was popular with the Men's Club, and he was chaplain to the Arlington County Fire and Police departments.

Those close to him said he cared deeply about his work. They also said they knew that he was increasingly troubled. His family and friends do not recall that he ever saw a psychiatrist or counselor, but they say he was obviously depressed.

The Rev. Steve Leva, who recently was transferred to a parish in Silver Spring, said he and other priests from St. James had discussed Reinecke's depression, although no one approached him. "We talked about it in the house. Because we were worried. Especially near the end," Leva said.

Not even his brothers knew about the confrontation with McDonald the Sunday before his death. His brother Ralph ate dinner with him at his Vienna home that day as he did almost every Sunday. It was an uneventful meal, Ralph Reinecke said.

Three days later, the priest's body was found in the fields of Berryville, near the Holy Cross Monastery. He had killed himself with a shotgun.

At St. James, the Rev. William J. Schopps found that Reinecke had left a strongbox containing all his personal papers on a chair in his bedroom. In a note dated that Sunday, Reinecke said he wanted no wake -- a request the diocese did not follow -- and wanted to be remembered by two Masses, one in Williamsburg and one locally.

The note did not say why he planned to kill himself.

It was just after 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Aug. 9, when Joe McDonald called out to Monsignor Reinecke.

McDonald says he told him in a quiet voice of some painful memories he had of a boyhood trip to Williamsburg with Reinecke, who was then a young priest at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington. McDonald was an altar boy at the time, serving Mass as many as seven times a week.

McDonald says he told Reinecke that they shared a bed at the hotel and that during the night Reinecke performed oral sex on him. McDonald says he asked Reinecke to quit his vocation.

McDonald says the two men had a short, quiet conversation outside the church. McDonald says Reinecke said initially that he didn't remember McDonald. Next, he says, Reinecke offered an excuse: "I may have been asleep." Then the priest said: "I'm not the man today I was then." McDonald says he told Reinecke he couldn't be sure of that.

Reinecke apologized, McDonald says, then thanked him and asked for his business card. The priest said he was going on a retreat and would call when he got back in midweek, according to McDonald.

McDonald says he then called his sister, his wife and a friend separately and recounted the conversation. Reinecke's brother Patrick found McDonald's card from the mental health association in the priest's suitcase at the monastery after he killed himself Aug. 11.

"When I found the card, I thought, 'I'll call [McDonald] when things settle down,' " Patrick Reinecke said. "When I saw the card, at first I was happy. I knew he had been depressed, and I thought he was getting help."

Patrick Reinecke, a Williamsburg firefighter, first heard of McDonald's allegation 1 1/2 weeks ago from a Post reporter. He said then he was surprised by McDonald's claim. Sexual abuse by priests "probably goes on from time to time," he said, but he had no evidence that his brother was involved. Patrick Reinecke declined to be interviewed again.

In subsequent interviews Ralph Reinecke, the brother from Vienna, questioned why such an allegation would have to be made public. He said he is not even sure he believes that the confrontation that McDonald said happened really happened. He is, however, sure of one thing: His brother was a good, fragile man.

"Billy did an awful lot of good in his life," Ralph Reinecke said. "I don't know why he was depressed. And I don't even know if I want to know why . . . .

"If Joe McDonald had a beef with Billy, I think his beef was answered. I just want people to remember him for all the good he did. If he had problems, he had problems."


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