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and Greg Cima

PEORIA - A priest who served in churches throughout Central Illinois has stepped down from public ministry after allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor about 25 years ago.

William Virtue has denied the allegations and agreed to cooperate with Peoria Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, according to a statement issued Thursday by the Catholic Diocese of Peoria.

The news stunned parishioners at Sacred Heart Church, Farmer City, where he served from 2001 to 2003. Members contacted Thursday said they have trouble believing the allegation.

"It just hurt you so bad to hear it," said church member Helen Johanns. "I thought he was a wonderful priest. I thought he was a very nice person."

Virtue, administrator at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Earlville in northern LaSalle County, also has served at churches in DeWitt, Livingston and McLean counties.

The accusation was made recently but stems from 25 years ago, when Virtue was serving in the Joliet Diocese, the statement said.

Diocese spokeswoman Elizabeth Smarjesse declined comment Thursday evening. The statement said the diocese would not provide further information out of respect for the privacy of those involved.

Virtue has been asked not to function as a priest in a public capacity, not to wear clerical garb or the Roman collar and not to go by the titles "reverend" or "father," the church statement said.

Virtue left a good impression on members of Sacred Heart, such as Eleanor Yeagle, rural Farmer City, who has been a member for about 57 years.

"I just can't believe that," she said of the allegations. "He was one of the nicest priests we've ever had."

She said Virtue was a constant visitor and brought the Eucharist when she spent a recent summer in and out of Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana.

"To me, I couldn't find a better priest," Yeagle said. "He was there for us."

Another member, Cora Maynard of Farmer City, said, "It just doesn't seem probable or likely; I just can't imagine."

Virtue's assignments in the Peoria Diocese include: Sacred Heart, Campus, and St. Mary, Loretto, 1986-1988; sabbatical for studies, 1988; St. Mary, Odell, Sacred Heart, Campus, 1989; Sacre Coeur, Creve Coeur, 1990-1991; St. Joseph's Home, Lacon, 1991; Sacred Heart, Granville, and St. Theresa, Cedar Point, 1992; Sacred Heart, Campus and St. Mary, Loretto, 1993-1996; St. Theresa, Earlville, 1996-1999; Mount St. Mary's Seminary, 1999-2001; Sacred Heart, Farmer City, St. John, Bellflower, 2001-2003; leave of absence 2003, and administrator of St. Theresa, Earlville, 2005.

Jenky said in the written statement he prays daily for all victims of sexual abuse.

"I send my heartfelt apologies to all those affected and pray that our Lord will heal the wounds resulting from this abuse," he said. "I also ask for the prayers of the faithful for all the individuals involved in this case and especially for the overwhelming majority of our priests and lay ministers whose zeal and holiness do so much to build up the body of Christ in Central Illinois."

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