Illinois Mennonite conference minister and psychologist credential removed

In 1991, Conrad Wetzel (b. 1931), conference minister for the Illinois Mennonite Conference and the Central District of the General Conference, confessed that he sexually abused four children and one adult. He abused one of the children over a number of years, continuing even after the child confronted him on two separate occasions. Offenses against others included looking at or touching their genitals, sometimes when they were sleeping.

Wetzel did not confess to any abuse until 1988 when one victim’s mother contacted an official at Reba Place, a Mennonite intentional community where Wetzel was a member. Not until 1991, when the victim’s brother asked for a meeting, did other officials at Reba Place learn of Wetzel’s initial confession and begin taking steps to process it outside their organization.

Between 1991 and 1994, officials from both conferences as well as Reba Place and its sister community Plow Creek Fellowship (where Wetzel was also a member) all became aware of more victims, but individual leaders did not uniformly share this critical information with community members and each other. By the end of 1994, they recognized that they had attempted “to work this situation out with [Conrad], but that didn’t really work” and that “Conrad was left too much in the role of planning the disclosures.”

Despite pointed counsel on reporting standards from the director of a sex offender treatment center who was close to Plow Creek Fellowship, there is no evidence in the files received by MAP that any organization involved ever reported to civil authorities. Nor is there evidence that anyone reported to the clinical psychology board under which Wetzel worked, including a role in the 1960s and ’70s directing services for children with mental illness and developmental disabilities at Chicago-Read Mental Health Center.

Outline of events

The following is an outline of events as shown in conference files received by MAP.

1988

Wetzel first admitted to abusing one boy over many years after the victim’s mother contacted Julius Belser at Reba Place.

1991

It was not until August of 1991, when the victim’s brother asked Reba Place for a meeting with Wetzel, that other Reba Place officials became aware of Wetzel’s confession to Belser and arranged for him to be professionally evaluated.

Four months later, Wetzel resigned his position as conference minister, citing ill health. He then confessed to Plow Creek elder Mitch Kingsley, demanding he not tell anyone.

1992

In January of 1992, Reba Place held meetings to discuss the previous summer’s evaluation of  Wetzel. Wetzel then confessed to the remainder of the Plow Creek elders. Four months later, he wrote a statement to Mennonite church leaders as a whole, confessing that he failed to seek accountability even after the victim confronted him on two separate occasions.

On May 8, Illinois Mennonite Conference (IMC) withdrew Wetzel’s credentials and notified its pastors, sending them a copy of Wetzel’s statement. Central District stated in a memorandum that they followed suit, suspending Wetzel and notifying its member congregations. Further, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries notified all Mennonite Church ministers, stating Wetzel “should not engage in a ministerial action representing the church.”

During this disclosure process, Wetzel filed a letter of complaint with IMC leadership, saying the process happened without sufficient consultation with him and his wife. In another letter, he expressed fear that there was no way he could be restored to the church, and asked for in-person meetings with conference leaders so he might “have their encouragement.”

In September, IMC leadership informed Wetzel of a plan to meet with him and his wife and asked him to cease writing letters to pastors and congregations. At the subsequent meeting, participants discussed forming “restoration groups” for Wetzel, one local and one churchwide.

1994

First letter from David Salmon

In April 1994, an “intentional neighbor” of Plow Creek who was director of a sex offender treatment center wrote the first of two letters to IMC leadership commissioner Robert Nolt, relaying concern about how Wetzel’s case — which now included multiple victims — was being handled:

“What public explanation has been given for the removal of Conrad’s credentials beyond his own written confession to a much smaller degree of offending with one victim? … A ‘leveling of knowledge’ should occur among the churches in the conference and others within his sphere of influence so that the seriousness and ongoing nature of his pattern can be made plain. Once this happened at Plow Creek there was a tangible break in the remaining denial and a sense of harmony developed which, before that time, had been hindered by differing perceptions of the dangerousness of his behavior. … [H]e remains able to move within Mennonite circles with his charisma and reputation largely intact.

“Conrad’s behavior is not only misconduct, it is also clinically and criminally considered to be sexual offending — a much more serious matter. All victims have a right to this process. … Has the conference been informed by Reba Place as to who these victims are so an invitation can be extended to them?”

Salmon further urged the conference to report to the appropriate authorities, including the state of Illinois and the clinical psychology licensing board, noting the church’s liability. Wetzel had falsely claimed in 1991 that no abuse happened in any of his professional settings.

A week after Salmon’s letter, Reba Place declined to accept the Wetzels back into their community.

Plow Creek’s “leveling of knowledge”

On May 5, Plow Creek forwarded a letter to IMC and the Central District, written five months earlier for internal use, that detailed incidents of abuse against three other children, at least one of them at a church function, as well as an offense against an adult male. His offenses against the minor he abused over many years were not disclosed, but incidents against others included looking at or touching their genitals, sometimes when they were sleeping. One incident involved a boy in diapers.

Plow Creek notes that when Wetzel “was confronted by some members, he utilized silence and/or intimidation as a power tactic.” He engaged in “many conflicts over ‘process’ of how to proceed,” indicating “an unwillingness to submit to any authority.” The letter also details financial misconduct by Wetzel.

Later in May, IMC conference co-minister Joe Richards sent the leadership commission a letter noting an enclosed copy of a second leveling letter from Plow Creek, but this second letter was not included in the files MAP received.

Conference co-minister Emma Richards, who was president of IMC in 1991, wrote to Virgil Vogt and other leaders of Reba Place, rebuking them for not disclosing what they knew earlier: “For nearly four years from 1988 into 1992 Conrad continued in his role as conference minister with some Reba leaders having some knowledge of his problem.”

Second letter from David Salmon

In July of 1994, Salmon wrote another letter to IMC’s Robert Nolt to state his disagreement with Wetzel’s therapist about his progress:

“I base my conclusion on observing his interactions with fellowship members rather than on statements made by Conrad. I am aware of criteria that numerous sex offender treatment programs use to assess treatment in progress. … Instead what we hear from Conrad is, ‘Why haven’t you forgiven me?’ We also hear that it’s a habit he has under control that others needn’t trouble themselves about. We also hear how he perceives he has been wronged in the process of others holding him accountable for his behavior.”

Salmon also notes that “adults entering treatment for child sex offenses have an average of 380 victims.”

Reflection on the disclosure process

At a December meeting, Reba Place, Plow Creek, and IMC recognize that “Conrad was left too much in the role of planning the disclosures”:

“Conrad controlled each disclosure, and likewise controlled when the IMC and Central District leadership became informed. … Conrad’s excuses of busyness or whatever reasons were accepted and not challenged as much. Reba folks and [Plow Creek] leadership and later members, were attempting to work this situation out with Conrad Wetzel, but that didn’t really work.”

The meeting minutes also include an account of what Reba Place officials knew and when, and to whom they disclosed.

In the files MAP received, there is no evidence that any organization — Reba Place, Plow Creek, or the conferences — ever reported to civil authorities, the clinical psychology licensure board, or the public.

By September 1994, the Wetzels had relocated to the Champaign, Illinois area.

Wetzel died in 2017.

Church-related positions

  • Mennonite minister at Plow Creek Mennonite Fellowship, Tiskilwa, Illinois, 1971–1986
  • Conference minister of the Illinois Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church and the Central District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church, 1986–1991
  • Attended various churches in Illinois, including Plow Creek Mennonite Fellowship (Tiskilwa), Reba Place Fellowship (Evanston), Champaign Church of the Brethren, First Mennonite Church (Champaign), Roanoke Mennonite Church (Eureka), and East Bend Mennonite Church (Fisher)

Other positions

  • Director for “chronic schizophrenia and psychotic retarded children” at Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, Chicago, IL 19661971
  • Director of adult day treatment program and director of children’s services at Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, 19711973
  • Executive director and chairman of the board at the Community Mental Health Center of Bureau, Marshall, Putnam, and Stark Counties, Inc., Illinois, 19721976
  • Worked at Chicago State Hospital, Dunning, Chicago, Illinois
  • Worked at Quad County Counseling Center, Princeton, Illinois
  • Worked at Zeller Zone Center, Peoria, Illinois
  • Director of the Illinois Amish Interpretive Center, Arcola, Illinois, 20012002
  • Volunteered at Urbana Public Television as host / producer for “Sitting Down with Conrad Wetzel,” until 2013

Documentation

Editor’s note: The documentation in this post fails to make a clear distinction between consensual sex among equals of any gender and sexual abuse. MAP decries ongoing oppression of LGBTQ people, believing it to be a form of sexual and gender violence.

Scroll to Top