ST. FRANCIS — After an administrative penal process that an Archdiocese of Milwaukee tribunal official termed a “very difficult process for all involved,” and following what he termed “prayerful deliberation,” Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki has concluded that Fr. David Verhasselt was guilty of an “indirect violation of the sacramental seal” of confession. An indirect violation is one in which a specific person’s sin, but not necessarily the identity of the penitent, is revealed by the confessor (priest).

“I cannot communicate strongly enough how seriously we take the obligation to maintain the seal of confession,” the archbishop wrote in a letter read at Masses celebrated Saturday and Sunday, March 17 and 18, at St. Catherine, Mapleton, the 900-family parish at which Fr. Verhasselt was serving at the time of the accusations. The archbishop celebrated the parish’s Saturday evening Mass.

His letter continued: ”When a penitent approaches a priest for the sacrament of penance and confesses his or her sins, a sacred trust is established. For the sake of the integrity of the sacrament, what is confessed must be held in strictest confidence.”

The matter centers upon an accusation brought in October 2009 that Fr. Verhasselt had violated the seal of confession. Bishop Richard J. Sklba, to whose attention the accusation was brought, consulted with the chancellor of the archdiocese, Barbara Anne Cusack, and the matter was referred to the archdiocesan tribunal in November 2009.

Archbishop conducts process

In an interview with your Catholic Herald, Zabrina Decker, chancellor for the tribunal, said that the archbishop conducts the process.

“He conducts the administrative penal process with priests qualified by their degrees in canon law,” she said, noting that she had no official role in the process, but that she coordinated the schedule so that all involved could meet, and made sure documents were organized.

The assessors, Sulpician Fr. Philip J. Brown, rector of The Theological College in Washington, D.C., and Franciscan Fr. Manuel Viera, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, both canon lawyers, assisted Archbishop Listecki.

“The archbishop chose assessors from outside the archdiocese in order to avoid any instance of partiality,” Decker said. “He wanted this to be an impartial process based solely on the facts. With that in mind even the investigator for the preliminary investigation (Fr. John Doerfler, a canon lawyer, vicar general and chancellor) was from the Diocese of Green Bay.”

Fr. Verhasselt, who was deposed during the preliminary investigation that began in November 2009, and during the administrative penal process itself, had a canonical advocate, Benedictine Fr. Daniel J. Ward, a canon lawyer from Washington, D.C.

Fr. Philip Reifenberg, pastor of St. Dominic, Sheboygan, and a canon lawyer, was part of the process in his role as promoter of justice for the archdiocese.

Investigation continues

In March 2010, Archbishop Listecki, having received the results of the preliminary investigation, decided there was sufficient information to warrant further investigation. The following month, Fr. Verhasselt was notified of the accusation, restricted by the archbishop from public ministry, and chose Fr. Ward as his canonical advocate.

Decker said that she understood one of the archbishop’s “great concerns” was making sure Fr. Verhasselt’s right of defense was observed, allowing him to present witnesses during the process.

“This is not a trial. This is an administrative penal process,” she said.

Decker said the archbishop’s choice of assessors from outside the archdiocese was done “to prove impartiality and to take Father’s right of defense and put that front and center.”

Vatican involvement

In May 2010, the results of the preliminary investigation, including Fr. Verhasselt’s initial deposition, were sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Two months later, Archbishop Listecki received a letter from the CDF asking for more information.

Decker noted that whether the case involves a direct or indirect violation of the seal of confession, the CDF must be consulted.

Related story: Q & A Canonical Penal Procedures and Proceedings Related to Fr. David A. Verhasselt

In August 2010, the archdiocese received a second accusation against Fr. Verhasselt. By the end of the year, the archdiocese returned information to the CDF which, in turn, authorized the administrative penal process in February 2011. At this point the assessors were chosen to assist Archbishop Listecki. 

Decker noted that the archbishop was in contact with the CDF throughout the process, and that once he received the congregation’s approval to proceed with it, it was conducted “as expeditiously as possible, while protecting Fr. Dave’s rights and allowing his canonical advocate to present witnesses.”

The priest and witnesses were deposed by the assessors, the promoter of justice, and Fr. Verhesselt’s canonical advocate in July 2011. In September, the assessors deposed both accusers.

While the two accusers met with the assessors, the CDF’s norms for the administrative penal process state that “neither the accused nor his patron (canonical advocate)” may know the accusers’ identities.

“But all of the information from the depositions of the accused was provided to Fr. Ward. Fr. Ward submitted questions for both accusers, and those questions were considered when the assessors deposed the accusers,” Decker said.

Process winds down

According to Decker, from October 2011 to January 2012, the assessors, Fr. Verhasselt’s canonical advocate, and the promoter of justice were provided with the documentation and testimony from the process in order to prepare their observations.

“The assessors received and evaluated all of the testimony and gave their assessments to the archbishop,” she said. “Fr. Reifenberg submitted observations to the archbishop and Fr. David’s canonical advocate had access to all of the material. He also wrote a brief in Fr. David’s defense.”

Decker noted she is aware that Archbishop Listecki thoroughly read all of the testimony from the case, and then met with the assessors to discuss their findings. After this meeting, he made his decision.

As a result of that decision, Archbishop Listecki decreed “that Fr. Verhasselt spend a year in prayer and penance during which time he will receive formation in the theology of the sacrament of penance.”

The archbishop personally informed Fr. Verhasselt of his decision on Saturday afternoon, March 17.