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Why was this priest fired after saving a dying parish?

Mystery surrounds the summary dismissal of a popular and successful priest.

  • Marie Rohde
  • United States
  • December 26, 2012
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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.

Each canonist said that in his years of experience, he had heard of only one accusation of violating the seal and neither was sustained.

"There have been instances where priests have been accused of 'indirectly' (i.e., unintentionally) violating the seal by saying something that could lead to the identity of the sinner," Morrisey said. "But even these are extremely rare to my knowledge."

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 resigned Aug. 1. (Three weeks later, in a story about clergy assignments, the archdiocesan newspaper quoted Listecki as saying that he had been looking for a placement that would balance Verhasselt's academic, spiritual and physical needs.)

Listecki did not respond to a request for an interview.

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.

"He acted as general contractor and negotiated great prices and, in some cases, donations," said Mary Sheridan, a member of St. Catherine's parish council. "The end result was a mortgage less than many people have on their houses."

In 2003, the word was out that St. Catherine would be combined with other parishes in the area. Wiesehuegel did a demographic study of St. Catherine and neighboring parishes. In 1989, St. Catherine served 145 households. By 1997, the number jumped to 329 with a total membership of 858 and income of $184,000. By 2002, membership surged to 1,830 and parish income was $740,000. Wiesehuegel argued that St. Catherine was the fastest-growing church in the area and they should be allowed to remain open with their own priest.

"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."

Full Story: Wisconsin priest moves on after mysterious suspension 

Source: National Catholic Reporter

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