CEDARBURG — Fr. Thomas Eichenberger, pastor of St. Francis Borgia Parish, who had been on administrative leave since mid-September, has been fully restored to ministry and will resume his role as pastor, according to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki.
In a letter read to parishioners last weekend at Masses, Archbishop Listecki said the investigation into a sexual abuse allegation against Fr. Eichenberger has concluded and the report against Fr. Eichenberger has not been substantiated.
The allegation of abuse against an unnamed priest surfaced during the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s bankruptcy proceeding. The individual filing the claim did not identify the priest when initially making the allegation, but earlier this year, it was determined his allegation was against Fr. Eichenberger.
When Archbishop Listecki informed the parish about the allegation in September, he noted that Fr. Eichenberger denied the allegation and that no other allegations had ever been received by the archdiocese about Fr. Eichenberger.
In accord with archdiocesan policies, the report against Fr. Eichenberger was immediately turned over to the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office and no charges were filed. It was then turned over to an independent investigator who turned the results of the investigation over to the Archdiocesan Review Board.
“… they recommended to me that the allegation was not substantiated and that Fr. Eichenberger should be restored to ministry,” wrote Archbishop Listecki in his Nov. 15 letter to the parish. “I have accepted their recommendation and informed Fr. Eichenberger that he is fully restored to ministry and may resume his role as your pastor. He will be back at the parish later this week and will join you for Mass next weekend.”
Happy to be back in his parish home, Fr. Eichenberger told the Catholic Herald Nov. 17 that the support he received from parishioners and fellow priests sustained him through the past two months.
“I want to thank all of the people who stood by me. My parishioners have just been super in supporting me through the process with dozens and dozens and dozens of emails and greeting cards and prayers,” he said, adding, “I have felt nothing but 100 percent support from fellow priests and my parishioners, and that’s what really bucked me up — the support I felt from my parish.
When the allegation came to light, Fr. Eichenberger stepped aside as pastor to allow for the investigation. He described that time away as depressing.
“I felt alone and abandoned, naturally, because I was cut off. The parish is my family, my job and my home, all three put together in one. It’s like I lost my job, my family and my home,” he said, likening it to having your house burned down, getting divorced and losing your kids all at the same time.
“The aloneness was pretty bad,” he admitted, adding he is grateful not to have to go through it any more. “The isolation is tough to endure.”
Even though the experience was terribly painful, Fr. Eichenberger said he forgives his accuser.
“I don’t judge him. He must be under a lot of stress and strain and a lot of psychological pain and suffering. I don’t condemn him one little bit; I want to try to put myself in his shoes. I do think he did this for money,” the priest explained, noting he was falsely accused. “It had everything to do with the bankruptcy, but I can understand somebody can be so pressured by life troubles that you do something you probably shouldn’t, but I don’t have any hard feelings and I pray for him that he will be able to get hold of his life and start fresh just as I have to get hold of my life again and start fresh in my parish.”
Regaining his good reputation will be a challenge, Fr. Eichenberger admitted, likening his situation to a bell that has rung.
“It’s not over, it will never be over. It’s like ringing a bell. I was accused and was all over the news with my face, my name. That’s like ringing a bell. The bell tolled. How do you un-ring the bell? It’s impossible, because people hear the charges far and wide, and they’re not going to hear the retraction, they’re not going to hear the exoneration,” said Fr. Eichenberger, adding that he is moving on with the knowledge that he has been found innocent by the police detectives and by the Archdiocesan Review Board.
“Once a priest is accused, it hurts all priests,” he said, explaining he feels he has a responsibility to clear his name. “I have my parish back, but I want my good name back.”
Fr. Eichenberger added that, in addition to thanking his parish for support, he is grateful to the archbishop, the Archdiocesan Review Board and vicar for priests, Fr. Patrick Heppe, associate pastor Fr. Justin Lopina, and Brenda Cline, parish director at St. Joseph Parish, Grafton, who assumed the spiritual, pastoral and administrative needs of the parish in his absence.
He said he plans to speak to his parishioners about the situation, offering his gratitude to them, prior to all Masses this weekend.