Split opinion on priest accused of cocaine possession

By Mark Rivera

The arrest of a priest Wednesday has taken those who knew him as a guardian of faith by surprise.

Rev. Christopher Layden, a 33-year-old St. John’s Catholic priest, was arrested Wednesday night by University police on two counts of possession with intent to deliver and possession of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a church after three grams of powdered cocaine were found during a warranted search of the Newman Center and rectory.

Layden was arraigned Thursday afternoon and entered a plea of not guilty all counts.

University Police’s Lt. Roy Acree said Layden’s arrest was part of an ongoing investigation.

The Diocese of Peoria said in a press release that Layden has been suspended from all pastoral ministry duties. The Diocese also said the Newman Center did not suspect him of having a drug use problem prior to this incident.

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For those who know him, the possibility Layden could have been involved with drugs is entirely out of character.

Sister Joanne Vander Heyden said she met Layden 16 years ago when he was still a senior in high school. They worked in neighboring booths at a Hoopeston, Ill. exposition where Layden sold badges made of corn.

“He started talking to me,” Heyden said. “He told me he was going to go into seminary school.”

Aaron Walker, sophomore in AHS, knew Layden from high school. He said Layden was the priest at Holy Trinity in Bloomington, Ill., during his senior year.

“I only had a few masses with him,” Walker said. He added that he thought Layden was a very good priest.

Many were shocked by the news of his arrest.

Cocaine use would be “totally out of character,” Heyden said. “(He) is extremely conscientious and responsible.”

Layden has moved several times throughout central Illinois. According to his online biography, which had been removed from the Newman Center Web site as of Thursday, Layden taught religious courses at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, Ill., and at Alleman Catholic High School in Rock Island, Ill., after earning a degree from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Layden was ordained a priest for the Peoria Diocese in May 2001. Sister Heyden attended the ceremony.

She said that the event was very touching. Layden wore a cloth around his fingers that had a special significance to his family, she said. The cloth was worn by his mother during her wake.

Up until recently, Layden resided in the Newman Center rectory.

The shock of Layden’s arrest was fresh to students who knew him.

“I heard that Father Layden had been arrested at work,” Walker said. “I thought to myself ‘I can’t believe that happened.'”

Layden posted $5,000 bond Thursday and was no longer in custody of the Champaign County correctional system, an official confirmed. He is scheduled to appear next in court on Oct. 21.

Hannah Hess and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.