At first, he thought it was merely a courtesy call.
Fr. Chuck Hanel was sitting in his office at Queen of Apostles Parish in Pewaukee on May 2, 2018. It was shortly after 11 a.m. on his second day back at work after a four-month sabbatical. The phone rang. It was Fr. Jerry Herda, vicar for clergy for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“The first thing he asked me about was the sabbatical, so I figured, well, he just wants to welcome me back,” recalled Fr. Hanel.
But after a few minutes of polite chit-chat, it became clear that there was another reason for the call.
“He said, well, now I have some bad news for you. And that’s when he told me.”
Fr. Hanel didn’t know it then, but that phone call was the beginning of an ordeal that would stretch more than two years and threaten his public reputation and his priesthood. Fr. Herda was calling to inform Fr. Hanel that a complaint of sexual abuse had been made against Fr. Hanel, and that he would be taking a leave of absence from his pastoral duties, effective immediately, while the matter was investigated by local authorities.
“I’ll never forget it in my life,” said Fr. Hanel of receiving that news. “We’ve all heard of priests who have been in this position. I never thought that I’d be one of those people that got that message. I was so shocked.”
It wasn’t until the next day, in a meeting with Fr. Herda, that Fr. Hanel was told that the complaint had been made by a minor, and it was not until more than a month later, when submitting to voluntary questioning by police, that he was made aware of who was bringing this accusation against him — a then-13-year-old female parishioner who alleged that she was touched inappropriately by Fr. Hanel during a confession in December 2017.
Fr. Hanel vigorously denied the accusation and retained the services of a lawyer. In September 2018, he was charged with second degree sexual assault of a minor, a felony.
“It was beyond my comprehension,” said Fr. Hanel. At the time, he had been a priest for 35 years. No such accusation had ever been brought against him, by either a minor or an adult.
“It was the first time that I could say, now I know what it means to ‘Take up one’s cross and follow me,’ as Jesus said,” said Fr. Hanel. “This was my time, I knew, that I had a cross to carry and that I needed to do so courageously and also as a minister, even though I wasn’t ministering — to face it like a person who is called to follow Jesus.”
It would be another 18 months before Fr. Hanel finally got his day in court. During that year and a half of hearings, discovery and investigation, he remained suspended from active ministry. Though it was a deeply difficult time filled with uncertainty and an abundance of public scrutiny, he said he was bolstered by the support of his three siblings and many of his parishioners, who reached out with supportive messages.
“As time went on I became more and more certain I would get through this. And even if, God forbid, I didn’t, I knew my conscience was clear. I knew I had not done what I was accused of,” said Fr. Hanel. “My conscience was clear, and I would take that to prayer and say, ‘Lord, I don’t know why this is happening to me but I’m going to bear it as someone who has nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.’”
Fr. Hanel’s case was finally brought to jury trial on March 10.
“The experience of being on trial as a defendant — that was something that was so out of my experience,” he said. “The system really treats you like a number. You are the defendant. You are not referred to by your name. The whole case was called ‘The State of Wisconsin vs. Charles Hanel.’ It’s like the whole state was against you. As I’m sitting in that courtroom day after day, there are TV cameras in there, and every (shot), between the judge, maybe a witness, there would be me, my face. They were focusing on me. That is something I would not wish on anyone who is innocent of a crime. It’s a very dehumanizing experience.”
But the jury trial was destined to be a short-lived affair. On only the second day, information came to light about the immigration status of the mother of the girl who brought the accusations; this information, which had not been previously known to Fr. Hanel’s defense team, provided a possible motive for the accusation.
“Evidently, there’s some kind of a quirk in the law that she could get some kind of a visa to live in the U.S. if she could show that she had a minor child who was the victim of a felony,” said Fr. Hanel.
Because Fr. Hanel’s attorneys had not had this information while preparing their case, a mistrial was declared on March 13. It was, said Fr. Hanel, “the beginning of relief.” The state still had the option to pursue charges against him — but on April 29, the assistant district attorney filed a letter advising the court that he would be moving to dismiss the charges at the next status conference in June.
Jerome Buting and Kathleen Stilling, Fr. Hanel’s defense attorneys, wrote in an April 30 letter filed in response to the ADA’s letter that “the evidence demonstrated that (the accuser’s parents) were aware that the only path to legal status was a U-Visa, provided to parents of minor victims of crimes such as sexual assault.”
The letter also detailed that, on March 30, 2020, criminal charges of second degree sexual assault/use of force had been brought against the father of Fr. Hanel’s accuser by a woman in his workplace, a fact which, according to the letter, the man had not disclosed to the prosecution.
Though the legal action against Fr. Hanel was now officially over, the archdiocese still had to conduct its own investigation. To begin the process, the archbishop issues a decree stating that the purpose of the preliminary canonical investigation “is to ascertain the facts and circumstances as well as imputability.”
“The investigator is then free to gather any and all information and presents a report,” said Fr. Herda. The investigator looks through files from both sides of the case, conducts interviews and reads court transcripts, and is given full freedom to compile an independent report, which is then shared with the Archdiocesan Review Board, who will review its content and make a recommendation to the archbishop.
“In this case, the review board recommended there was no basis for the accusation, not to begin a formal penal trial and that Fr. Hanel should be restored to full ministry,” said Fr. Herda.
Fr. Hanel was able to return to Queen of Apostles Parish on Aug. 3. His first official action as pastor was to welcome Bishop Jeffrey Haines to the parish for Confirmation on Aug. 6.
“Standing at that podium and seeing the church at least as full of people as it can be these days, I just had the biggest smile on my face,” said Fr. Hanel. “Because here, I knew, I’m back.”
Asked what he has learned from this experience, Fr. Hanel said that he probably won’t be able to fully understand the answer to that question for a few years.
“But I think this has showed me that I am resilient, that there is some strength there,” he said. “You don’t feel strong while you’re going through it, but after you’ve gone through it and gotten to the other side, you have to admit that it did take some strength to get through. That’s a nice insight for me to live with.”
He said he prays for the family of his accuser every day and does not feel anger towards them.
“The scourge of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church is the worst thing that could possibly happen in my lifetime,” he said. “The Church has to come to grips with that, that it’s guilty of a terrible sin, and it’s not just the perpetrators; it goes all the way up. I would be the first to say that. However, I would hope that my situation can communicate the fact that just because there is an accusation does not necessarily mean that the person is guilty. There are some false accusations. They say that victims don’t lie. And that may be true but not all accusers are victims.”