CEDARBURG — Fr. Thomas Eichenberger, pastor of St. Francis Borgia Parish, has been placed on administrative leave following an allegation that he sexually abused a minor in a parish 38 years ago.
According to a letter from Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, emailed to St. Francis Borgia parishioners on Friday, Sept. 4, and read by Fr. Patrick Heppe, vicar for ordained and lay ecclesial ministry, at weekend Masses, Sept. 5 and 6, an 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 making the allegation in their claim,” wrote the archbishop. “However, just recently an identification was made and it names the priest as Fr. Tom Eichenberger.”
The archbishop pointed out that Fr. Eichenberger denies the allegation and “no other allegations have ever been received by the archdiocese about Fr. Eichenberger,” he wrote, adding, “I must remind everyone that no substantiation of the allegation has occurred.”
Archdiocesan policy dictates that whenever an allegation is made, however, it is reported to the district attorney for review.
In this case, the archbishop wrote that the district attorney declined to prosecute.
Archdiocesan policy also dictates that an independent investigation by a professional investigator will begin.
The investigator will turn his or her findings over to the Diocesan Review Board, chaired by former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, to recommend if the claim can be substantiated.
During this time, Fr. Eichenberger will be on administrative leave and Brenda Cline, parish director of St. Joseph Parish, Grafton, has assumed spiritual, pastoral and administrative needs of St. Francis Borgia Parish.
Fr. Heppe described his role as the one who informs the priest of the allegation and guides him through the process of stepping aside from parish ministry, as well as the one who informs the parish in the name of the archbishop of an allegation.
Describing this as the hardest thing he has to do as vicar, Fr. Heppe said he informed Fr. Eichenberger of the allegation on Sept. 1, and he met with the parish council on Sept. 3. He and the council had planned to make the announcement to the parish at the weekend Masses, however, it was somehow leaked to media outlets, prompting the Sept. 4 email sent to parishioners.
“From my vantage point, it’s the absolute worst, the hardest thing I have to do,” he said, explaining he can’t be too sensitive to potential perpetrators, but adding that accused priests experience “terrible pain and suffering,” and “in this case, Fr. Eichenberger has a stellar record.”
Fr. Heppe will remain in contact with Fr. Eichenberger throughout the investigation, he said, explaining that he cannot offer a timeline for when it might be concluded as it depends on availability of witnesses.
In the meantime, he said the parish is in good hands with Cline, associate pastor Fr. Justin Lopina and school principal, Kelly Swietlik.
“It’s business as usual; the parish spiritual needs are being met,” he said, noting the parish has strong leadership and a good spirit.
Fr. Heppe added that the priest, the parish and victims of abuse are offered opportunities for spiritual direction and counseling.
“As a church we need to support all people as we deal with these things, not just be too biased toward one individual,” he said.