Jefferson Parish prosecutors filed charges Wednesday against a Roman Catholic deacon and prominent lawyer from Metairie who was arrested in March on suspicion of molesting a pre-teen boy nearly 20 years ago, before his ordination as a member of the clergy.
Virgil Maxey “V.M.” Wheeler III, 63, was charged with two counts each of sexual battery and indecent behavior with a juvenile by Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office. The charging documents contain few specifics, beyond noting that the abuse occurred between March 2000 and March 2002.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office investigators have previously said that Wheeler is accused of taking a shower with the boy in question and performing oral sex on him.
The charges mark the latest twist in Wheeler’s case since his arrest by the Sheriff’s Office in March. In July, the accuser filed a civil lawsuit alleging a sweeping pressure campaign by prominent local Catholics to get him to back off, including an offer of $400,000 to stop cooperating with the criminal investigation.
Connick’s prosecutors held a series of meetings in recent weeks with the victim’s family and attorneys, as well as with Wheeler’s defense team, as they decided whether to file charges. While the charges deal with one alleged victim, sources with knowledge of the discussions told WWL-TV that authorities have received allegations Wheeler also had similarly preyed on at least one other young person.
The case was allotted to Judge Donald Rowan of the 24th Judicial District Court. Wheeler’s attorneys, David Courcelle and Vinny Mosca, said they are reviewing the charges and have no further comment.
Wheeler has been suspended from his role as a deacon at St. Francis Xavier Church in Old Metairie since August of last year, sometime after the alleged victim in the case – now 32 – fully disclosed his claims against Wheeler. Wheeler also took a leave of absence from his job as an attorney at Chaffe McCall before departing the prestigious law firm permanently on Dec. 31.
Wheeler was once friends with the family of the accuser at the center of the charges filed Wednesday. The Times-Picayune and WWL-TV know the alleged victim’s name but are not publishing it because the outlets do not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse without their permission.
In the Catholic church, deacons are considered ordained clergy, similar to priests. Unlike priests, they may be ordained despite being married, though they may not remarry if their spouses die.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond ordained Wheeler in 2018, even though the alleged victim’s lawsuit says his mother in 2002 had reported an incident involving Wheeler to former Archbishop Philip Hannan. When the boy was 12 years old, Wheeler took him and his brother on a ski trip. The brother told their mother that Wheeler had tried to coax him into his bed. The mother knew Wheeler wanted to become a deacon, so she told Hannan, who had retired in 1988.
The lawsuit says the mother went on to also report the incident to the head of the church’s deacon program, Deacon Jim Swiler. The archdiocese says it has no record of the complaint to Hannan or Swiler in its files, according to the lawsuit. Hannan died in 2011 and Swiler died in 2015.
When the family learned Wheeler had been ordained in 2018, they renewed their complaint with the church, but Aymond initially took no action. Only later, in the summer of 2020, did the alleged victim disclose more specific details of the abuse to his father, who called for another meeting with Aymond.
The lawsuit says that during a meeting with the alleged victim in August 2020, Aymond said, “Now, I have to do something.” Ten days later, Aymond announced he had removed Wheeler indefinitely from ministry.
The lawsuit says the archdiocese reported the allegations to the Jefferson Parish DA, but not to the Sheriff's Office. The alleged victim later filed a police report with JPSO deputies on Oct. 21, 2020.
The civil lawsuit remains unresolved.
Sheriff’s Office deputies booked Wheeler on March 8, about four months after the alleged victim in the case reported his claims to deputies.
A day after his arrest, Wheeler made $95,000 bail and was released from jail. Records show that the person who posted the bond is also the treasurer of St. Francis Xavier.
If convicted of sexual battery of a child younger than 13, Wheeler would face between 25 and 99 years in prison. Louisiana law defines that crime as “the intentional touching of the anus or genitals” of a child by an adult. There is no statute of limitations.
Indecent behavior with a juvenile – defined as any lewd act inflicted on a child which is meant to sexually arouse the offender or the victim – can carry between two and 25 years in prison if the victim is under the age of 13.
Wheeler is one of two clerics to have served under Aymond in New Orleans with pending charges of molestation.
Last year, the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office booked the Rev. Patrick Wattigny after the priest allegedly confessed to molesting a teen boy several times beginning in 2013. Wattigny is out on bond but has since been charged by the District Attorney’s Office in St. Tammany Parish.
Wattigny has pleaded not guilty; his case remains pending. He was added to an archdiocesan list of clerics who have worked locally or were ordained in the local church and have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults. Wheeler has not been added to that list.
Aymond can remove clerics from active ministry, but he told WWL-TV and The Times-Picayune last year that he could not undo the ordination of credibly accused clergy without them first agreeing to be “laicized,” or returned to a lay state and completely out of the clergy. Later, after Wattigny’s arrest, Aymond said he would ask the Vatican to forcibly laicize all of the living clerics who were credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults. Church officials recently said they have not received any word on whether Rome is taking any such action.