February 27, 2009

Abbott pleads guilty to setting St. Anne Church fire

By Mary Ann Wyand

St. Anne parishioners in New Castle are thankful that William S. Abbott finally told the truth on Feb. 19 about starting the late-night fire which gutted their historic Henry County church on April 7, 2007, a day before Easter.

Abbott, a 34-year-old New Castle resident who has a history of criminal offenses, admitted to Henry County prosecutor Kit Crane and staff prosecutors that he broke into the church and set the building on fire.

He pleaded guilty to arson, a Class A felony, and will receive a reduced prison sentence as part of his plea agreement.

The felony charge, which has a maximum 50-year prison term, will be reduced to 40 years. Other charges of burglary, theft and two additional counts of arson will be dismissed in the plea agreement.

Fingerprints and other evidence collected by investigators at and near the fire scene led authorities to arrest Abbott on arson charges on May 10, 2007.

Henry County Superior Court 1 Judge Michael Peyton scheduled a sentencing hearing for 9 a.m. on March 16, the day that Abbott’s trial was set to begin in Wayne County Superior Court in Richmond.

Abbott pleaded guilty in Wayne County Superior Court last week. The trial had been moved from Henry County at the request of Eugene Hollander, Abbott’s attorney.

The plea bargain also removed habitual offender charges.

Abbott has been convicted of several crimes since 1992, including child molestation, resisting law enforcement, receiving stolen property, battery and receiving stolen auto parts, among others.

Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown, said on Feb. 23 that Abbott’s plea agreement “seemed almost too good to be true.”

Sister Shirley said she “did a lot of praying” for Abbott and hopes that his sentencing is “the beginning of him doing good rather than evil.”

Before Masses last weekend in the basement of St. Anne’s Parish Life Center, Sister Shirley told parishioners that she “hoped that the news of Billy Abbott pleading guilty came as a great joy to you as it did to me.”

She said parishioners are “glad that he accepted responsibility for his actions.”

This year, St. Anne’s Lenten theme is “Forgive As You Have Been Forgiven,” Sister Shirley said, which was chosen because of the trial date.

“He’s had a hard time in prison,” Sister Shirley said. “He’s been in prison for longer than he’s been out. The longer I live the more I just think that we see so little of a person’s life. We see a small portion. I only know one thing about Billy Abbott—that he burned the church. I don’t know all that God knows. I don’t see all of [Abbott’s] 34 years.”

Father James Farrell, director of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis, is scheduled to preach a three-day Lenten retreat about prayer, forgiveness and community on March 15-17 at St. Anne’s Parish Life Center.

Sister Shirley said parishioners will pray the peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi at Masses during Lent and also reflect on a booklet from 23rd Publications titled “The Path to Forgiveness” by Father Paul Boudreau.

“I just marvel at how God has been with us these past two years,” Sister Shirley said. “As difficult as it’s been, it’s God’s way and God’s time. It’s been two years, but I think that time was needed for us to come to the place [of healing] where we are now.”

St. Anne parishioners will break ground for their new $4.4 million church on the parish campus during a 2 p.m. ceremony on March 29, she said, which will be a new beginning for the 243-household parish. †

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