ST. FRANCIS — The tribunal of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is continuing its investigation into an allegation brought against Fr. David Verhasselt that the priest violated the seal of confession.

The priest, serving as pastor of St. Catherine Parish, Mapleton, at the time the allegation was made, was placed on administrative leave by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki April 19. Fr. Verhasselt, 62, is restricted from public ministry until the investigation is complete. While he may continue to say Mass privately, he cannot hear confessions and do public ministry.

Ordained a priest in 1989, Fr. Verhasselt was named temporary administrator of St. Catherine in 1994. A year later he was named administrator, and in 2000 he was appointed pastor.

Sacrament’s integrity must be maintained

In a letter to parish council members and trustees at St. Catherine, Archbishop Listecki explained the need for the “restrictive action.”

“An essential aspect of the integrity of the sacrament of reconciliation is the complete confidence in confidentiality. When a penitent approaches the sacrament and confesses sins, a sacred trust is established. This trust in absolute confidentiality is inviolable,” the archbishop wrote. “Without it, the confidence of the faithful in their priests and in the sacrament can be lost. That is why any allegation is taken so seriously and requires complete investigation. This is not arbitrary; the law of our church demands it.”

In an interview with your Catholic Herald April 20, Fr. Paul Hartmann, judicial vicar of the archdiocese, reiterated the archbishop’s view.

“The goal of this process is that every person of faith can have mutual faith in the integrity of the sacrament,” he said. “That is paramount.”

Fr. Hartmann added that placing a priest on administrative leave was “standard operating procedure with any grave dealing.”

Investigation process

In November 2009, the allegation that Fr. Verhasselt had broken the seal of confession was brought to Bishop Richard J. Sklba who immediately notified the tribunal. The tribunal asked Fr. John F. Doerfler, a canon lawyer who serves as vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of Green Bay, to conduct the initial investigation.

The decision to have a person from outside the archdiocese do the investigation, according to Fr. Hartmann, provided “fresh eyes” and someone who had “an unbiased point of view” regarding the parish and the priest.

After interviewing the person who made the allegation, Fr. Doerfler was able to ascertain the context in which the alleged break of the confessional seal took place, and to establish credibility, consistency and the possibility that the violation had occurred, according to Fr. Hartmann.

Canon 983 of the Code of Canon Law states: “It is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.” The penalty for direct violation of the sacramental seal is excommunication.

On April 19, Fr. Patrick Heppe, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, and Fr. Paul Hartmann, judicial vicar, informed Fr. Verhasselt of the allegation and of the archbishop’s decision to place him on administrative leave. The two archdiocesan officials met with parish staff, and Fr. Heppe and Deacon David Zimprich, archdiocesan deacon services coordinator, met with parish council members and trustees that night.

“There’s a lot of hurt here, a lot of love for him (Fr. Verhasselt),” Deacon Zimprich, spokesperson for this matter, told your Catholic Herald April 20. “Hearts are breaking for him.”

In a separate statement to media, Archbishop Listecki said, “During this investigation we support and care for Fr. Verhasselt, while making sure the teaching and laws of the church are respected and obeyed. Most importantly, we want to extend our pastoral care for the people of St. Catherine’s Parish during this difficult time.”

Fr. Heppe told your Catholic Herald April 20 that “pastoral concern for the people of St. Catherine” was a priority. He noted that a senior priest would serve the parish for 10 days and that this would be followed by the naming of a temporary administrator.

After receiving Fr. Doerfler’s report of the witness’s testimony, Archbishop Listecki, Bishop Sklba, Bishop William P. Callahan, Frs. Hartmann and Heppe, and Zabrina Decker, tribunal chancellor, met in mid-March and determined that, based on the observations of the Green Bay priest, the investigation would continue.

Next steps

Fr. Verhasselt, who can enlist the help of a canonical advocate whose responsibility is to see that the priest’s rights are observed, will have an opportunity to provide Fr. Doerfler with a narrative of the incident or incidents that led to the allegation that he broke the seal of confession.

Fr. Verhasselt’s remarks will be added to the report that will be given to Archbishop Listecki. The archbishop will add his opinions, and then send it to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where it will be reviewed.

“The congregation will give us direction,” said Fr. Hartmann regarding what decision or action might result. “They will instruct us after they’ve read the case.”

In his letter to parish council members, Archbishop Listecki noted that the process was an “investigation.”

“No violation has been proven,” he wrote.

The archbishop added that “because of the complexity of this issue, there is no way to predict how long the investigation and the ensuing process may take.”