Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wisconsin priest moves on after mysterious suspension

Marie Rohde
National Catholic Reporter
Dec. 21, 2012
Ashippun, Wis.

Fr. David Verhasselt, then pastor of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish in Oconomowoc, Wis., was apprehensive when the Milwaukee archdiocese's vicar for clergy, Fr. Patrick Heppe, called in April 2010 to set up a meeting at the parish office.

"He would not tell me what it was about at all," Verhasselt said, speaking publicly on the matter for the first time. "I had never had such a visit before and it was mysterious."

Heppe, accompanied by Fr. Paul Hartmann, the archdiocese's judicial vicar, told Verhasselt that he had been accused of breaking the seal of confession. In a scene similar to firings in corporate America, Verhasselt was told to collect his private belongings, leave the parish and not return. As he was walked from the building, he was told to have no contact with parishioners. Placed "on leave," Verhasselt could not perform any of the functions of a priest.

"I was in shock," Verhasselt recalled. "I told them I had never done such a thing."

Deacon David Zimprich announced Verhasselt's removal to stunned parishioners at a Saturday evening Mass a day later, on April 17, 2010. Others learned of it from a television newscast.

Tim Clark, then parish council president, said some wanted to picket the archdiocese or go to Rome to make the case for their priest. A member of an archdiocesan strategic planning committee -- one that studied how to deal with the increasing shortage of priests -- Clark thought picketing was a bad idea. Instead, he met with the archbishop and the chancellor four times, arguing canon law in support of the accused priest.

All to no avail.

Verhasselt, now 65, said he was never given details of his alleged misdeeds -- he was not told who had complained or what it was that he supposedly had revealed. His canon lawyer was not allowed to question the accusers. This is the story that he has been able to piece together.

An unknown person approached Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba in November 2009, accusing Verhasselt of breaking the seal of confession. Verhasselt did not learn of the allegation until April 2010, when Heppe ordered him from the parish. In May 2010, the archdiocese sent the results of its investigation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome. The congregation responded in July 2010; it said the evidence was lacking and asked for additional information.

The archdiocese responded in December 2010, informing the Vatican office that it had found a second, unrelated violation: Verhasselt had indirectly, that is, unintentionally, broken the seal of confession. The congregation responded again in February 2011, saying it would not take action against Verhasselt, but that the second violation could be handled locally.

Oblate Fr. Francis Morrisey and Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, prominent canon lawyers with decades of experience, told NCR that violating the seal of confession is among the most serious of crimes in church law, but it is also an extremely rare accusation.


Orsy pointedly asked concerning Verhasselt's case: "What did he really do?"

On March 16, 2012, Verhasselt was called into the chancery to meet Archbishop Jerome Listecki -- their first meeting since this ordeal had started. The archbishop told Verhasselt that he had been found guilty of indirectly violating the seal of confession. He said he wanted the priest to spend a year in prayer at a Missouri abbey and take a course on the rite of reconciliation. At the end of the year, the archbishop said, he would consider reinstating Verhasselt, but there would be no guarantees that Verhasselt could resume active ministry.

"I asked him, what do I do about the house I own?" Verhasselt said. "The response was, 'Sell it.' " Verhasselt asked for time to think.

"The archdiocese made it very clear that they did not want me to serve as one of their priests, so I decided to move on with my life."

Listecki spoke at a Saturday evening Mass the same day. Many parishioners were visibly angry. Parishioners David Wiesehuegel and Norbert Stuczynski walked out of the Mass. Others wept.


Verhasselt was named administrator for St. Catherine in 1994. The congregation worshiped in a brick church built by Irish farmers in the 1840s, in an area where subdivisions are taking over farm fields. Politically, it is among the most conservative parts of Wisconsin.

"It was a dying parish and I was sent to close it," Verhasselt said.

Instead, the congregation thrived, drawing members from 25 zip codes. Membership grew and an addition, including a new sanctuary, was built in 2000, the same year Verhasselt was formally named parish pastor.


"It was well-known that as quickly as St. Catherine's grew, participation at other churches diminished," Wiesehuegel said. "That created a sort of jealously among priests and the archbishop."

Verhasselt had a reputation of welcoming everyone to St. Catherine.

"There were people who were turned away from other parishes and Father Dave's attitude was, 'Who am I to judge?' " Clark recalled. "Couples who were living together would come to him to be married. Mothers who were not married asked him to baptize their babies. His attitude was that if you turn away young people at this stage in their lives, do you really think they will come back to the church later?"

When other priests were unavailable to anoint the sick, hospitals and nursing homes in the area always knew that Verhasselt would come, no matter what time, Clark said.

Parishioners tell of a time when a member of a neighboring parish was dying. The family called the parish priest, Fr. John Yockey, who could not -- or would not -- come to anoint the man. Verhasselt was called and went to the dying man's bedside. The family asked Verhasselt to say the funeral Mass.

Yockey wrote a letter chastising -- and personally attacking -- Verhasselt. Yockey wrote that Verhasselt was obliged to contact him before going out on the call. Verhasselt allowed the letter to be read at a parish council meeting and he asked for advice on how to respond. The council advised that the letter was not worthy of response.

Yockey declined to comment for this story. He referred questions to Fr. Ralph Gross, a former chancellor for the archdiocese who now serves as the archbishop's representative in the area.


Verhasselt's suspension and ultimate resignation rocked not only members of his former congregation but also archdiocesan priests.

Clark said he has spoken with several priests who are troubled by Verhasselt's experience. "Some have said they are worried about hearing confessions. They say it's almost impossible to give a homily about sin and not have someone think, 'He's talking about me.' "

Sheridan reflects the views of many parishioners: "It was apparent that the archdiocese wanted to get rid of Father Dave one way or another. There was another area priest who had a personal vendetta against him and had been trying to cause him problems."

Most parishioners believe that Verhasselt's fall from grace came because he crossed what Wiesehuegel calls "the good old boys' club."

After resigning from the priesthood, Verhasselt knew he wanted to return to the ministry, he said. The 10th of 12 children reared near Green Bay, Wis., he remembered playing the priest with his siblings as a child. The call to the priesthood was there but he resisted it, working for 15 years as a nursing home administrator before entering the seminary. He was ordained in 1989.

He describes his experience with the archdiocese as essentially house arrest.

"I was not even allowed to anoint or say the funeral Mass for my brother or sister, both of whom passed away during this ordeal," Verhasselt said. "I did request a temporary lifting of the restrictions for [their] funerals but it was not granted."

He said he is speaking out now at the urging of his surviving siblings.

Verhasselt has joined the Evangelical Catholic Church, a fledging denomination formed in 1997 that boasts seven missions in the upper Midwest and others in Ireland. With headquarters in Chicago, it accepts married men, women and gays to the priesthood. It leaves open the question of church teaching on the Virgin Mary. It bills itself as "a welcoming community of faith rooted in the Catholic tradition."

On Aug. 6, Verhasselt opened a new parish, Holy Name of Jesus, in nearby Ashippun, Wis. More than 100 worshipers routinely attend Saturday night services in the Zion Lutheran Church. Many of them are young families, and two services in November included baptisms. Sunday morning services were to begin earlier this month.


All those interviewed said they like and support Fr. Michael Strachota, the new pastor at St. Catherine who also serves another nearby parish.


The Catholic Herald, official newspaper of the archdiocese, noted that people attending Verhasselt's new parish could be excommunicated. No formal action has been taken.

"There is something really broken in the Roman Catholic Church," Eileen and Dennis Kester told NCR in a letter. "It has been for years with all the pedophile priests and cover ups. It sickens us to see them 'crucify' one of the truly kind and humble servants of God." Once parishioners at St. Catherine, the Kesters now belong to Holy Name of Jesus.

Verhasselt said he is content now that he can move on and minister in the community.


Full article at the National Catholic Reporter

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