MAPLETON – In spite of allegations against the priest who has served them for 16 years, including the last 10 as pastor, parishioners of St. Catherine filled the church for the Saturday evening Mass, April 24.

“This is the year of the priest,” Fr. John Schmitz, a senior priest for the Milwaukee Archdiocese who served as a replacement priest during the weekend’s Masses, spoke during his homily. “It is very important that we pray for our priests – past, present and future.”

Fr. David Verhasselt, 62, was placed on administrative leave by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki April 19, after an allegation surfaced in November 2009 that he had violated the seal of confession. Until the investigation is complete, Fr. Verhasselt is restricted from public ministry. While he may say Mass privately, he cannot hear confessions or do public ministry of any kind, according to canon law. This includes being involved with parish life at St. Catherine.

Deacon Dave L. Zimprich, coordinator of deacon services for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, is available to staff and parishioners until the matter is settled. At the end of the Saturday evening Mass, Deacon Zimprich read Archbishop Listecki’s statement. 

“Some may question why such restrictive action is necessary,” he read. “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. 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,” Deacon Zimprich continued.

“Until the required processes are complete, Fr. Verhasselt will be put on administrative leave. This is not a judgment on the allegation, but rather we remove Fr. Verhasselt from his pastoral obligations so he can freely participate in the necessary processes without the additional stress of daily parish life,” he said, adding that due to the complexity of the issue, it is unknown how long the process will take. 

While parishioners understand the process needs to take its course, many say the absence of their parish priest is great. The 5:15 p.m. Saturday Mass alone had eight large poster boards filled with parishioner well-wishes in handwriting that varied from the proper cursive of a senior parishioner, to the shaky printing of a kindergartener, showing the love the parishioners have for their pastor.

Deacon Zimprich empathized with the hurt parishioners were feeling, but urged people to remember what their faith was all about. 

“I talked to many of you, I listened and spoke to your staff, and I heard the pain, and the anger, the hurt and the suffering. It’s real,” he said. “But I also heard some people say, ‘My child is supposed to receive his or her first Communion next week. With Fr. Dave (Verhasselt) not there, they are not receiving it.’ I heard parents and young people say, ‘If Fr. Dave (Verhasselt) is not there, I’m not going to be confirmed in a couple of weeks.’

“I ask you to reconsider,” Deacon Zimprich pleaded. “I think if Fr. Dave (Verhasselt) were here, he would say that you’re not receiving me in first Communion; you are receiving the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

“And to the young people, I think he would say you are not receiving me, you are receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit. I ask you to reconsider.”

Bill Frederick, director of religious education at St. Catherine, has known Fr. Verhasselt for eight years. According to Frederick, the recent allegation against his parish priest is “a complete and total shock.”

“We’ve talked about it on the staff, and no one has ever heard him – ever – speak anyone’s name, anything like that, ever,” he said. “I don’t know where (the allegation) is coming from.

“I spoke to him today, and he’s having just a rough time,” Frederick said about Fr. Verhasselt. “He’s just really sad and completely devastated by all this. It’s really crushed him, and it’s hard.”

Frederick worries how an unproven allegation will affect Fr. Verhasselt’s reputation.

“I’m very sad about it. I think he is truly a fine, fine man, and I understand where the archdiocese is (coming from), I know what’s going on, and I get it, but I’m just really sad that it has to be so public,” he said. “(Fr. Verhasselt) has said, ‘How does my congregation trust me any more?’ I just hurt for him.”

“The wonderful thing about St. Catherine  – and I told him this – is that these people love him, and they trust him unconditionally. He has loved us unconditionally; he has opened the doors to these people, to everyone who comes here.

“His whole philosophy or idea is that everyone is welcome here,” Frederick added. “He doesn’t close the door or turn his back on anyone who comes here seeking faith, and it’s so important, and I’ve seen that over and over again, and I love that about him and about this parish. Everyone is here because they want to be here.”

While Fr. Verhasselt declined to comment on the allegation when your Catholic Herald reached him by phone, he did have a message for his parishioners.

“I love them and support them, and continue to pray for their support,” he said.

Barbara Boelter, a St. Catherine parishioner, views the allegation against Fr. Verhasselt skeptically.

“I don’t quite believe it,” she said. “I’ve only belonged here for two years, but I’ve known Fr. Dave (Verhasselt) since he’s been in the area. It seems like somebody cooked something up.”

In an effort to help parishioners cope with the sudden and shocking news, the parish conducted a healing service April 22. Included in the packed church was Boelter and fellow parishioner Susie Grulke, a life-long St. Catherine parishioner.

“I think the people here have the same kind of reaction that I had,” Grulke said. “They don’t really believe it either. It’s a very serious charge to make against somebody, and I’m sure whoever was concerned thinks it’s true. Either that, or they don’t understand what’s happening,” she added.

“It’s your reputation. All your life you strive to be upstanding, and then to be slapped out of the water with just one accusation – whether it’s true or not won’t make any difference – you’ve still been thrown through a barrel of turmoil,” Boelter said.