March 20, 2009

Abbott receives 40-year sentence for setting St. Anne fire

By Mary Ann Wyand

With spring comes a new beginning—a March 29 groundbreaking ceremony and a long-awaited apology from the man charged with arson in the destruction of historic St. Anne Church in New Castle two years ago.

Fifty St. Anne parishioners journeyed to Richmond on March 16 to hear Wayne County Superior Court 1 Judge Michael Peyton sentence William L. “Billy” Abbott of New Castle to a 40-year prison term for burning down their beloved church on Holy Saturday, April 7, 2007.

In a plea agreement with Henry County prosecutors on Feb. 19, Abbott plead guilty to a Class A felony charge of arson on the condition that additional felony charges of burglary and theft as well as habitual offender status would be dropped from his sentencing hearing.

Abbott was arrested on May 10, 2007, and has been incarcerated for 677 days at the Henry County Jail in New Castle. Good behavior earned him credit for an additional 677 days so he has served more than three years of his sentence.

Eight St. Anne parishioners and Franciscan Sister Shirley Gerth, the parish life coordinator of St. Anne Parish and St. Rose Parish in Knightstown, testified during Abbott’s sentencing hearing, which lasted about two hours.

Speaking last, Sister Shirley said she tried to convey the grief and pain felt by every member of the parish family.

“I began by saying that no words could describe the tragedy of losing St. Anne Church,” she said. “… At the end, I addressed Billy Abbott and told him that despite it all I’ve been praying for him. I thanked him for pleading guilty and told him that we had been praying for forgiveness because only God sees the heart of the person. … I said I hoped that every day he sat in prison he would remember the crime that he committed against a sacred dwelling place and against all the people who had entered those doors for almost 100 years.

“I saw a big difference in his attitude from the pretrial hearing I attended last fall to this one,” Sister Shirley said. “He made more eye contact this time. He seemed to have a sarcastic attitude the last time that I did not see today. He had written a letter of apology. I don’t know if that is going to be published. They did give me a copy of it.”

Sister Shirley said several members of Abbott’s family were present in court, including his mother, Rebecca Abbott of Henry County, who testified on his behalf.

“My heart ached for his mother,” Sister Shirley said. “I was able to speak to her before the hearing and sentencing began. She said, ‘We need prayers’ and ‘I’ve been wanting to talk with you for a long time.’ ”

Abbott, who has served time in youth homes, jails and prisons since he was a teenager, told the court that he was “truly sorry” about the fire and did not purposely target the church.

“Judge Peyton’s concluding remarks were absolutely beautiful,” Sister Shirley said. “… He said there are many victims here. He mentioned the archdiocese, … all of our parishioners, … Billy Abbott’s family, … Billy himself, who has been in trouble since he was 14 years old. I do think that the system let [Abbott] down many years ago. I just wish all of our parishioners could have witnessed what we did today. Billy took the stand and he did express his sorrow over what happened.”

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein will help St. Anne parishioners break ground for their new $4.2 million church at 2 p.m. on March 29 at the parish campus.

“Construction will be well under way by Easter,” Sister Shirley said. “I’m going to enjoy watching the new church go up.” †

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