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Thursday, April 27, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Sex offender sets up new church

FORT ATKINSON WI - William J. Smith sparked the curiosity of his neighbors almost from the day he moved to Jefferson County last fall.

It had been years since anyone had tried to start a church in Fort Atkinson, and Smith's effort was particularly unusual.

He installed an altar in his apartment and invited people for daily morning Mass and evening prayers, calling his undertaking "A Vatican-Free Monastic Community."

There would be more surprises for neighbors.

Smith, 55, was convicted in 1989 of two counts of second- degree sexual assault in Door County for having sex with a 15-year-old boy. Smith was pastor of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Sturgeon Bay at the time. The victim was an altar boy with a learning disability.

For the rest of his life, Smith must notify the state of his whereabouts and activities so he can be listed on Wisconsin's sex offender registry ( State officials say Smith failed to do so, and it is this allegation that now finds Smith back in legal trouble and at odds with some of his neighbors.

There are currently 18,319 people on the state's sex offender registry, and charges against them for failing to keep their information updated are not uncommon.

Registry officials have referred charges against more than 1,500 offenders since 1998, said Grace Roberts, registry supervisor.

However, Smith's case is unusual because of the number of items he allegedly failed to notify the registry about and because he is attempting to re- establish himself in the same position of community authority that led to his convictions, Roberts said.

Officials with the state Department of Corrections say Smith moved from Milwaukee to Fort Atkinson without notifying them, used the alias "Father Abbot Joseph" in interactions with others and failed to inform them of his church-related volunteer and work activities. All are violations of the registry law, Roberts said.

The alleged violations led Smith to be charged March 14 in Jefferson County Circuit Court with one count of breaching the state's sex offender registry statute, a felony punishable by up to six years in prison.

"Sex offenders thrive on secrecy," Roberts said. "Making sure they're not anonymous is obviously a useful crime prevention tool."

Smith, who declined to be interviewed, is free on a $500 signature bond. A pretrial conference is set for June 7.

Smith's attorney, Michael Witt, said the allegations against his client are "less than clear" in the criminal complaint and that Smith is currently in compliance with the state's sex registry law.

That law, enacted in 1993, allows the state to track sex offenders and disseminate information about them. Smith - like others who have served their prison time and are no longer under state supervision - is required to provide updated information within 10 days whenever he changes his residence, school enrollment or employment.

The state sends out an annual verification form on the offender's birthday, but registrants also are subject to random verification checks. The latter is what tripped up Smith, according to court records. His address was correct on his birthday last May, but a call by a registry official in December turned up a disconnected phone number in Milwaukee.

The registry official then sought unsuccessfully to find him through various means, including searches of court records, death files and license plate numbers. An anonymous tipster alerted the state on Feb. 13 of Smith's mid-November move to Fort Atkinson.

During the time registry officials were searching for him, Smith was employed by a different state agency - the Department of Workforce Development. Since June 21, 2004, Smith has been an employment and training specialist at the Jefferson County Job Center in Jefferson.

He continues to work at the job center, earning an annual salary of $32,718. Rose Lynch, a department spokeswoman, said Smith is to have no contact with youth in his state job.

Asked why the Department of Corrections wasn't able to locate Smith through his job, Roberts said registry officials call employers only as a last resort because they don't want to jeopardize an offender's job stability, which often is a key to successful reintegration.

Roberts said registry officials were particularly concerned by Smith's church activities.

"Anytime a person who is required to register assumes a position of power or authority in the community, it brings our attention," she said. "In that regard, this case sticks out."

Smith operates the church, which he calls "The Abbey of the Incarnation, The Order of Saint Benedict," out of his home at 115 E. Sherman Ave. near downtown Fort Atkinson. The large house is divided into three apartments, of which Smith rents one.

On his Web site (, Smith describes the abbey as "a welcoming Christian monastic community in which everyone who professes and believes in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is welcome."

The abbey is part of the Independent Catholic Christian Church, based in Philadelphia. Bishop Tim Cravens did not respond to an e-mail inquiry as to Smith's status within the denomination.

When a Fort Atkinson police investigator asked Smith how he got the title "Father Joseph Abbot," Smith told him he gave it to himself, according to a police report.

John Leonard, an associate professor of religious studies at Edgewood College in Madison, said the denomination is a very small movement that split from the Roman Catholic Church in Holland in the 1870s. The sect acts independently of papal authority and is much more liberal in its views than the Catholic Church, ordaining female and gay priests, for instance.

Debbie Tesch lives in one of the other apartments at 115 E. Sherman Ave. and immediately took to Smith. He seemed very caring, and she liked his Christian ideals, she said.

She talked to him daily and let her twin 7-year-old sons and her 11-year-old daughter attend prayer services on their own at his apartment.

When a Fort Atkinson police detective told her about Smith's past in March, she felt betrayed and confronted Smith about his 1989 conviction.

"He said, 'The kid was almost old enough to consent.' That's what really got me," Tesch said.

Tesch also learned that Smith posted a photo of himself and her three children on his church Web site without her knowledge or consent. She said he initially denied the photo existed, even though a copy of the Web site with the photo on it is now part of the criminal complaint.

Tesch said she no longer has any contact with Smith. While she supports the reintegration of offenders into society, she cannot condone his secrecy. "Part of rehabilitation is honesty, not denial," she said.

Other neighbors echoed the need for offenders to abide by the registry regulations.

"It's a very simple process to follow," said Becky Rice, who lives on the same block. "If he's not in compliance, he's clearly trying to fly under the radar, and I have a problem with that as a neighbor. People have a right to know this kind of information."

Deb Yoder, the third tenant at 115 E. Sherman Ave., said she was initially shocked early this year to learn of Smith's past but has not had any concerns about him since.

"We were all talking in the hallway, and he more or less said, 'If you have a problem with me, let me know.' "

Smith's Web site encourages others to consider joining his monastic community.

Among the application requirements: an autobiography, eight letters of recommendation and a sexual misconduct background check.