Gettelfinger makes a stand
Local bishop was one of the few to vote against revised abuse policies
By JESSICA WEHRMAN
Evansville Courier & Press
November 14, 2002
Evansville Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger was one of seven U.S. Catholic bishops Wednesday to vote
against new policies by the U.S. Catholic Church aimed at preventing child sex abuse by priests.
Gettelfinger, who was supportive of most of the new policies, argued that while the policies would give bishops the power to remove priests from public ministry after one act of sexual abuse of a minor, it would not give them the discretion to return priests to the ministry who had sought forgiveness and experienced a spiritual conversion.
His arguments, he said in an interview, were based largely on the case of the Rev. Michael Allen of Celestine, Ind., who admitted to a sexual relationship with a teen-ager more than 20 years ago. Allen was later removed as pastor there.
Gettelfinger cited the biblical story of St. Peter, who denied Christ three times but later redeemed himself to become the head of the church. It's unfair, Gettelfinger said, to inflict new law on Allen years
after he did everything required of him by old church policy.
But Allen's victim, David Prunty, said he does not believe Allen should be a priest again. "Allen jumped through all the hoops and therefore it's OK for him to go back to the ministry," he said. "I have a lot of problems with that."
Gettelfinger said he is sympathetic to the victims and is trying to maintain a balance of sensitivity to the victims and fairness to
priests. It's a balance frequently spoken of this week, as bishops wrestled to revise policies first adopted at a June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that were later rejected by the Vatican. Those initial policies led to Allen's dismissal. Gettelfinger said he voted for the Dallas policies because he thought it was important that bishops speak with "a common voice" in the immediate aftermath of the scandal.
The reworked policies - supported 246-7 with six abstentions - aim to give priests more due process, reassert bishops' authority in dealing with abuse and require bishops to follow all applicable civil laws in reporting abuse to local authorities. Bishops vowed to report all abuse to authorities, however.
The policies will now go to the Vatican, which is expected to recognize them as law in the U.S. Catholic Church. They will be up for review in two years.
Victims groups say the policies adopted by the conference do little to protect children.
"Fundamentally, it deepens the rift between Catholic lay people and their leaders," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It'll make it harder for victims to come forward and harder for Catholic parents to feel reassured."
He said the rules require victims to report abuse by the age of 28,
though bishops can receive a waiver from the Vatican to report older victims. He also said it will require more involvement by Vatican bureaucrats and less from church laity.
"The bishops in essence said, 'sexual abuse - been there, done that, we're moving on,'" he said.
Prunty said he does not believe Allen is rehabilitated: "He never apologized to me," he said. "He only apologized publicly when he was cornered.
"Why am I expendable? Why is the life of one person expendable while Allen's life needs to be held aloft?"
Allen, reached by telephone, declined to comment, saying he wanted to talk to Gettelfinger first.
But Martha Schepers, 55, of Celestine, said she wanted Allen reinstated at St. Peter Celestine Catholic Church.
"He really is a good priest," she said. "When this first came out, he
admitted to it and everyone was just in shock - this is not the guy we know. But I think Catholics have been taught to go to confession, say they're sorry for their sins, be forgiven and life goes on. I think he's been punished enough."
Gettelfinger said under the new norms, Allen would presumably have to be reported to Rome. It's unclear whether or what the process would be were he to appeal.
However, the fact that Allen admitted having sex with the teen-ager
does not help him.
"These new norms give bishops the flexibility to get rid of a priest," Gettelfinger said. "It doesn't give them the flexibility to make the judgment that the person is reinstated."
Other bishops said any priest who admits to sexual abuse can no longer serve publicly as a priest.
"A person found guilty of sexual abuse will not be allowed to resume active ministry in any circumstance," said Bishop Thomas Doran of
Gettelfinger said he did not intend to do anything with current cases - other than take reports of abuse - until the Vatican approved the bishops' revised policies.
He also said he was disappointed that the bishops have not moved forward on his proposal to provide safe houses for priests who were pedophiles. By firing pedophile priests from their duties, the church is sending priests out in the world who might need treatment, he
argued. Safe houses, he said, would help prevent abuse by defrocked priests.
Bishops said they hoped the new policies would help the church move on from a drama that has gripped it for much of the year and resulted in the removal or resignation of some 300 of the nation's 46,000 priests.
Evansville bishop opposes one-strike policy
EVANSVILLE — Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger, who has allowed two Roman Catholic priests to remain active despite sexual improprieties, said Monday he was opposed to a one-strike-you're-out policy for
all priests found to have committed sexual misconduct.
Two priests in the Evansville diocese who were assigned to new parishes after their sexual misconduct are examples of success stories that would not have happened under a zero-tolerance policy, Gettelfinger said.
"My conviction is that priests can not only repent, but be
rehabilitated," Gettelfinger told reporters.
A proposal that the US. Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to discuss this week in Dallas would impose a zero-tolerance policy for priests who molest children in the future, and a two-strikes-you're-out policy for those who abused children in the past.
Some bishops have said they support a no-tolerance policy for those
who committed past abuse.
Gettelfinger said he believed any priest accused of currently abusing a child should be reported to police, and that pedophiles should not be allowed to serve as priests.
He said the national policy should also instruct bishops on what to do to keep priests found to be pedophiles away from children.
"My point is if a priest is guilty and is diseased — as you will — as a pedophile, that I've got to do all I can to keep that person off the street," Gettelfinger said.
Gettelfinger has been criticized by some in recent weeks for his handling of sexual misconduct allegations that have been made
public against a handful of priests in the Evansville diocese, which includes about 100 priests in all or parts of 12 counties in southwestern Indiana.
Two of the priests remain in positions of authority, and are generally accepted and supported by parishioners. They are required to restrict their work with children.
The Rev. Jean Vogler, after spending a year in prison after a 1996
conviction on possession of child pornography, was assigned to Holy Trinity Church in Evansville.
The Rev. Michael Allen was assigned to St. Peter Celestine Catholic Church in rural DuBois County after receiving treatment for having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy. The relationship occurred while Allen was a priest more than 20 years ago.
Gettelfinger said he knew that rehabilitation efforts did not work with all priests, such as the Rev. Mark Kurzendoerfer.
Kurzendoerfer, who most recently was an associate pastor at churches in Haubstadt, Princeton and Oakland City, was accused in the early 1990s of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy more than 20 years earlier.
Kurzendoerfer was sent to a treatment center in May in St. Louis after Gettelfinger said Kurzendoerfer had violated rules prohibiting him from being alone with children.
Gettelfinger, who is leaving Wednesday for the bishops' conference, said he was concerned that expectations about the outcome of the
conference are too high. But he said he thinks the bishops will be able to pass a strong policy that is clear and easily understood.
"My best hope is that they would have a renewed hope, and beginning of building of trust again, trust that's been violated, trust that's been abused, trust that has been lost," Gettelfinger said
For more news reports about Bishop Gettelfinger, click here.
In late July (2002), Beliefnet, leading religion Web site, posted a list of the nine worst Bishops. Gettelfinger is listed amongst this group.
For more information, go to Beliefnet's site.