ST. FRANCIS — Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki is investigating an allegation that Fr. David Verhasselt, former pastor of St. Catherine Parish in Mapleton, is leaving the Roman Catholic Church to become a priest in the Evangelical Catholic Church.

In a Thursday, Aug. 9 email update sent to priests, deacons, parish directors and those working in the Cousins Center, including employees of the archdiocese, Catholic Herald and Catholic Charities, the archbishop explained that after Fr. Verhasselt was found guilty last spring of indirectly violating the seal of confession, he “took recourse (commonly known as an appeal)” when the archbishop decreed that he should spend a year in prayer and penance. The case is currently with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome, the archbishop wrote.

“Regrettably, last week I received a letter from Fr. Verhasselt informing me of his decision to resign from the presbyterate. Then, sadly this week I learned that Fr. Verhasselt has allegedly chosen to leave the Roman Catholic Church and become a priest of the Evangelical Catholic Church,” wrote the archbishop, explaining that the Evangelical Catholic Church isn’t in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and that he is obligated by canon law to investigate this allegation.

“If true, Father’s choice to become a priest of the Evangelical Catholic Church separates him from the Roman Catholic Church, and would result in his immediate excommunication.”

The website of the Chicago-based Evangelical Catholic Diocese of the Northwest states that Fr. Verhasselt was “granted the status of cleric-in-residence and assigned as pastor of Holy Name of Jesus in Ashippun, Wisconsin” on Saturday, Aug. 4 when several members of the diocese, including its bishop, traveled from Chicago to celebrate the birth of the mission parish and “canonically” receive Fr. Verhasselt into the Evangelical Catholic Church.

Bill Morton, director of media and communications for the Catholic Evangelical Diocese of the Northwest, confirmed in a phone call with your Catholic Herald that Fr. Verhasselt, whose term at St. Catherine expired June 20, is in the process for clerical incardination, which can take between six months to a year.

“He is a priest within the Evangelical Catholic Church and his current assignment is pastor of Holy Name of Jesus,” he said of the 17-year-old diocese’s first mission parish in Wisconsin.

Fr. Verhasselt declined an interview with your Catholic Herald, but said he feels the entire process, which has restricted him from public ministry since he was placed on administrative leave April 29, 2010, was a “set-up” and that he doesn’t want to be “misrepresented” any longer.

“The only thing is that the people at St. Catherine were wonderful in supporting me,” he told your Catholic Herald in a phone interview. “I was innocent all along and they stuck with me through a long ordeal.”

Fr. Pat Heppe, vicar for ordained and lay ecclesial ministry for the Milwaukee Archdiocese who has kept in contact with Fr. Verhasselt to offer support during his administrative leave, said the archbishop chooses where to send a priest for the year of prayer and penance, usually in a monastic setting.

“The archbishop was looking at a setting that would provide a good balance between his academics, his spiritual and his physical needs,” Fr. Heppe said, though he couldn’t share the location.

Zabrina Decker, tribunal chancellor and canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview Monday that canonically, a priest can’t resign from the presbyterate, so Fr. Verhasselt is still on administrative leave and his appeal is still pending in Rome.

She said that Archbishop Listecki’s investigation into the allegation of Fr. Verhasselt leaving the church is a separate process from that of the CDF and will be completed by the end of September. Archbishop Listecki contacted Fr. Verhasselt to let him know that he received the allegation and opened an investigation, giving him two weeks to respond with the help of his canonical advocate, while the archbishop has been looking into evidence presented to him regarding the allegation, Decker said.

All of the information will then be turned over to the promoter of justice, Fr. Phil Reifenberg, who will write his observations for the archbishop who will make a decision, she said.

“Once the archbishop makes a decision regarding this current allegation, all of that information will then be communicated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome,” Decker said, “and they will make a decision as to the final disposition of all of the information.”

Decker said that Fr. Verhasselt can come back to the church at any time if he is excommunicated.

“He would just need to voice his renunciation of any exploration that was done in the Evangelical Catholic Church and come back to the Roman Catholic Church. …” she said. “We’re a church of forgiveness and of welcoming.”