SUPERIOR –– Franciscan Fr. Henry Willenborg, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church, Ashland, was suspended from parish duties by the Diocese of Superior after The New York Times reported Oct. 16 that the 59-year-old priest was the father of a 22-year-old son and may have had inappropriate relations with a minor in the mid-1980s.
Ordained a priest for the Order of Friars Minor in 1976, and serving out of the Franciscan Province of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, Fr. Willenborg was assigned to the Diocese of Superior in summer of 2005.
The situation came to the attention of the diocese after a New York Times reporter interviewed Fr. Willenborg after Mass in mid-September for the story which has now been published.
After being interviewed, Fr. Willenborg, dean of the North Central Deanery, contacted Fr. Kevin Gordon, episcopal vicar for clergy, on Sept. 15 telling him of the son he fathered, and Fr. Gordon immediately informed Bishop Peter F. Christensen who was in Rome.
In a prepared statement read to his congregation the weekend of Sept. 19-20, Fr. Willenborg told parishioners of his past relationship with a woman, Pat Bond and said, “Over 20 years ago, I became inappropriately involved with a woman, and a child was born in 1986. I disclosed everything to my religious superiors and they immediately set up a trust fund to care for the child.”
According to The New York Times article, the financial support was provided by the religious order to support the child, Nathan Halbach, with the approval of a court-appointed guardian.
“My failure to be faithful to my vows has caused me and many others pain and disappointment. I have regretted this for a long time,” Fr. Willenborg said in a statement to his fellow priests and parish leaders of the Superior Diocese.
The New York Times article included information suggesting Fr. Willenborg’s alleged inappropriate relations with a high school student in the mid-1980s, information that diocesan officials said they had not previously known.
After learning of the priest’s alleged misconduct with a high school student, Bishop Christensen took immediate action. In accord with the Diocese of Superior morals and ethics policy that directs officials to suspend any priest, deacon or lay minister for which suspicions of allegations relative to minors exist, Fr. Willenborg was removed from his parish Oct. 16.
Bishop Christensen presided and preached at the five Masses this past weekend in Ashland and Odanah in order to keep parishioners informed of the developments.