ELM GROVE – More than 50 people attended a meeting and Q-and-A session held at St. Mary’s Visitation Church Wednesday, March 2 following the allegation that placed their pastor, Fr. Laurin Wenig, on administrative leave.
After parishioners learned at Masses Feb. 26 and 27 that an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor dating back to the 1970s had been reported to the archdiocese, parish leadership planned a meeting to explain the steps of and answer parishioners’ questions regarding the investigation which the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office has deferred to the archdiocese because the statute of limitations prohibits it from initiating prosecution.
View the flowchart illustrating the process the archdiocese uses to handle reports of clergy sexual abuse, “How the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Handles Reports of Clergy Sexual Abuse.“
The session, which lasted a little more than an hour, was led by Deacon Dave Zimprich, archdiocesan associate director for deacon services and clergy advocacy and oversight; Fr. Pat Heppe, vicar for ordained and lay ecclesial ministry; Deacon Richard Piontek, temporary parish director; and Deacon Charles Kustner, St. Mary’s Visitation.
“When there is an accusation against a priest, against anyone in ministry, there is a certain protocol that we follow,” Fr. Heppe explained, referring to the steps resulting from the Charter for the Protection of Children written by the bishops at their 2002 meeting in Dallas. That protocol includes removing Fr. Wenig from active ministry during the investigation.
As the investigation continues to determine if the allegation is substantiated, Fr. Heppe explained that his role is supporting Fr. Wenig, who is under a “tremendous” amount of stress.
“I have spoken (to) and e-mailed Fr. Laurin almost daily through the last week and a half to two weeks and it’s been a traumatic experience and so those traumas we acknowledge today,” he said of Fr. Wenig, who denied the allegation in his letter to parishioners that was read at the weekend Masses and sent to all registered parishioners. “There are traumas with the victims as well, we can’t forget that, but at this stage … my job as vicar for clergy is to walk with him through this process.”
The process is what Deacon Zimprich explained using the flowchart, “How the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Handles Reports of Clergy Sexual Abuse” that’s posted on the archdiocese’s Web site. Because the district attorney’s office will not pursue an investigation, the archdiocese will assign a private investigator – someone who’s not affiliated with the archdiocese – to investigate, he explained. The investigator will talk to all parties involved, get the information needed and submit a report to the promoter of justice, i.e., the chancellor of the archdiocese, and follow through with reports and recommendations from the review board to the archbishop to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, he said.
“Ultimately, if he’s found guilty, then the final decision on what happens with Fr. Wenig will come from Rome,” Deacon Zimprich said.
If the accusation is unsubstantiated, Fr. Wenig will be able to return to the parish and function as a priest, according to the deacon.
When the floor opened to questions, Deacon Zimprich answered one regarding the credibility of an accusation made 35 years after the fact, explaining that once an allegation is made, the same process they’re taking with Fr. Wenig begins.
“It will be a thorough investigation,” he said.
One woman asked what the archdiocese will do to protect a priest’s good name if he is falsely accused and if a priest can sue a false accuser.
“Yes,” Deacon Zimprich said, explaining that some priests have sued, but not all do, and that while the archbishop and other archdiocesan leadership can tell people that an accusation is false, some damage might be done to a priest’s reputation.
One man asked if in this situation a priest is innocent until proven guilty as someone accused in the “secular world” would be, but Deacon Zimprich said, “No,” because people jump to the conclusion that a priest is guilty because he has been removed.
Another woman asked why the priest’s name is made known when the accuser’s is not. Deacon Piontek said that people may not come forward because they don’t want to be out in the public eye, and later added that giving out a person’s name after they came forward would just be re-victimizing that person.
In response to a man’s comment that no one has been as aggressive as the Catholic Church in trying to protect the youth, Fr. Heppe said that all people should receive the training required of anyone who wants to volunteer or work in the church.
“We are doing some marvelous, marvelous things in trying to protect kids in our society today,” he said.
Are some of the cases motivated by greed, one woman asked. Deacon Zimprich said while it may happen, it isn’t rampant.
Fr. Heppe responded to concerns about what will happen to St. Mary’s Visitation by reiterating that it should be “business as usual” in terms of Mass and school. Deacon Piontek also addressed one woman’s concern about how to talk to the students about the situation, explaining that the principal came up with a plan for teachers to discuss the situation with students at a level appropriate to their grades, but to leave discussion principally up to the parents.
“St. Mary’s is doing a great job,” Fr. Heppe said. “Just don’t underestimate the importance of what you do, your faith and your leadership.”
Beth Doane, 38, a parishioner came to the meeting to learn more about the situation after being “in total shock” and “disbelief” at news of the allegation against Fr. Wenig.
“We have complete faith in him,” she said.
Doane came with a card and a bright green gift bag full of cookies and candy in hand for Fr. Wenig.
“My son and I make the (peanut butter cup) cookies and then we … go hang them on the doorknob at his condo. We ring the doorbell and we leave,” Doane admitted to the secret delivery that she and her 9-year-old son, James, will continue to make with the help of parish staff.
“I came because I wanted some things clarified,” said a woman in her 80s who has been a parishioner for 42 years. “Whether the priest could come back if he was exonerated, which I’m hoping he (will) because I (think) he was a wonderful priest and I support him and I’m very sorry this accuser came forth. I don’t believe it, that’s my opinion.”
Tony Bernal, 52, also attended the event to get information about the process and to show his support.
“I am one that believes that the Catholic Church is the face of Christianity and the attacks that come upon our church and upon our priests is just business as usual,” Bernal said.