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Manhunt launched for fugitive priest

Siegfried Widera
Siegfried Widera

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MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (CNN) -- When Siegfried Widera got word last May that child molestation charges would soon be brought against him, authorities say the Catholic priest immediately booked a Caribbean cruise, returned to the United States a few weeks later and then vanished.

Widera, 61, was moved from parish to parish in Wisconsin and California in the 1970s through the mid-1980s, remaining in the priesthood even after a 1973 child molestation conviction.

He is now one of the most wanted sex crime fugitives, accused of 42 counts of child molestation in both states.

He has never been defrocked from the priesthood.

A massive manhunt is under way to find Widera, with more than seven different local, state and federal agencies taking part in Wisconsin, California, Arizona and Texas.

Authorities say they believe Widera poses a danger to children, and they are seeking the public's help in tracking him down.

"He's a serial child molester," said Doug Bachert, a deputy U.S. marshal who is coordinating the fugitive task force. "Wherever he is now, there are some unwitting families that have no idea what he is about."

Bachert said authorities want to "catch him as fast as we can."

"This has been an ongoing pattern with him for years, decades. This is not going to stop," Bachert said.

The first felony charges were brought against Widera in Wisconsin in May. The nine counts accuse Widera of molesting three children -- two 10-year-olds and a 9-year-old -- from 1970 to 1973. If convicted, the priest could face a maximum of 10 years in prison for each count.

This week, authorities in Orange County, California, issued an arrest warrant charging him with 33 felony counts of child molestation involving four boys from 1978 to 1985. The boys were all under 14.

Widera has eluded authorities since the Wisconsin charges were brought. Bachert said Widera, who was believed to be in Arizona at the time, got wind of the charges in advance and fled.

"The first thing he did was schedule a cruise for himself. He got out of the country, but he did come back. But the trail basically goes cold in Texas," he told CNN in a phone interview.

Bachert said authorities believe Widera may be getting assistance from his two brothers and a sister. "We believe that the family has had a role in helping him avoid arrest," Bachert said.

CNN contacted Tucson Container Corp., a company founded by Widera's brother John, for comment. CNN was told John Widera no longer worked out of the office, and employees refused to give any further contact information.

Calls to the home of Widera's sister, Christel, went unanswered.

Widera was ordained on May 20,1967, and first served as an associate pastor at St. Mary Help of Christians Church in West Allis, Wisconsin, where he remained from 1969 until June 1972.

It was while there that Milwaukee authorities believe he molested the two 10-year-olds, the second of whom was allegedly abused in June 1972, the same month he left the parish to become associate pastor of St. Mary's Parish in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

A year later, he pleaded guilty to an "act of sexual gratification involving the sex organ of himself and a minor," which was witnessed by other young boys, according to court documents.

It was not immediately clear from the court records whether he served jail time or what his punishment was. Calls to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee were not returned. But he did remain in the priesthood.

According to the charges filed this past May, another child was molested that same summer in 1973.

By June 1975, Widera had transferred to St. Andrew Parish in Delevan, Wisconsin.

Two years later, he was in California, serving the Diocese of Orange County at St. Pius V Church in Buena Park. He served at four other parishes in the region until August 1985, when he was removed from the ministry after a parent brought a complaint of alleged child molestation.

During that span, according to the charges brought in Orange County this week, Widera molested at least four boys while there. In every case in both states, the children described similar encounters with Widera, who they said would begin by tickling them.

"I got to hate it when he would tickle me because I knew what was going to happen next," one alleged victim is quoted as saying in the court papers.

Though Widera was removed from the ministry, he was not defrocked.

The U.S. Marshals are urging anyone with information on his whereabouts to call 800 336-0102.

"There's every reason to believe he's doing the same thing he's charged with," Bachert said. "We intend to find him. We're looking. It's only a matter of time."

From CNN National News Desk Editor Wayne Drash.



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