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  Auburn Priest: 'I Fell in Love'

By Shawne K. Wickham
Manchester Union Leader
November 24, 2002

Auburn -- A Roman Catholic parish in this small town just east of Manchester is reeling from revelations that its popular, long-time pastor has admitted to sexual misconduct with a young girl more than two decades ago, and has been removed from ministry.

The Rev. James Haller, 66, asked for prayers and forgiveness in a letter addressed to parishioners, dated Nov. 21, that announced his resignation as pastor of St. Peter Church. He also resigned Thursday from his administrative position of dean of the Manchester East Deanery and, according to a statement released yesterday by the diocese, "will not have any permission to function as a priest again."

It is the latest in a seemingly endless string of scandals that has rocked the Catholic priesthood -- and shaken the faithful -- in New Hampshire and nationwide.

At St. Peter yesterday, parishioners expressed anger, sadness -- and betrayal -- that the man who had baptized their children and celebrated their weddings for the past 17 years had hidden such a secret. Four years ago, Haller thrilled youngsters at the church's 50th anniversary celebration by taking a turn in the dunking booth, and sampling more than 30 entries in a pie contest.

One woman who was picking up her 10-year-old from a church retreat yesterday morning said a photo of the priest has been on her son's bureau, from the day of his First Communion two years ago. But she said angrily, "It won't be there when I get home."'I fell in love': Haller's letter stated, "Over two decades ago, I fell in love with a young woman who was legally a minor. I had the intentions of leaving the priesthood and marrying her. I was unable to make the decision to leave the priesthood, and the relationship ended. But my involvement has remained a part of my human failure in my past that now affects the future of my life and your future as parishioners of St. Peter Church."

According to the Rev. Edward J. Arsenault, who is Manchester Bishop John McCormack's delegate on sexual misconduct cases, the accusation against Haller arose last Sunday, when the now-adult woman's attorney contacted the diocese's lawyer.

The accusation dates back to before Haller's time at St. Peter. It is the "first and only" report of such misconduct the diocese has received about the priest, the diocese statement said.

On Monday, Arsenault said, the pastoral outreach person for the diocese, Joseph Naff, met with the woman and her lawyer.

Based on Naff's interview, Arsenault then met with Haller. "I presented the accusation to him and then took my investigation to the review board with the recommendation that it was credible."'This case is closed': Arsenault said the diocesan review board then reviewed the case and concurred with his recommendations: "That the accusation is credible, that we offer care to the complainant, and that Father Haller not have any permission to function again as a priest. And the bishop has accepted the review board's recommendation, so this case is closed."

Arsenault said he could not reveal how old the woman was at the time of the sexual misconduct, other than to say she was a minor, which means under 18, according to the diocese's sexual misconduct policy.

"The person who made this complaint was firm in her request that we keep all of the circumstances of this confidential, and that's her request, that her identity not be made known publicly. I've agreed not to discuss any details, and it's out of respect for her that I'm doing that."

Arsenault did say that the woman and her attorney have contacted the state attorney general's office about the matter, and said his office "assisted them in doing so."

Attorney General Philip McLaughlin yesterday would not comment on the Haller case or identify the age of the girl at the time of the offense.

Arsenault said the church has offered pastoral care and counseling services to the woman, who he said is "doing as well as you could expect."

"We want to be helpful to her, and I have the sense we've established a good, helpful relationship with her already."'Someone who's harmed': Asked why the woman came forward now, Arsenault said, 'I wouldn't want to characterize her motivation. But it's someone who's harmed, and came forward and asked for help. And my unequivocal response is, how can we be helpful to you?"

Either Bishop McCormack or Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian planned to attend all weekend liturgies in the parish, and counselors from New Hampshire Catholic Charities were to be available after Masses for any parishioners who need help coping with the news.

In yesterday's statement from the diocese, Bishop McCormack said he is "deeply saddened" by the situation, and said parishioners of St. Peter's, as well as the priests of New Hampshire, have been "deeply hurt by this news."

"While it is difficult to bear this news about someone who in many other ways has served the Church so faithfully, we need to remain faithful to our commitment that even one instance of abuse of a minor is unacceptable in priestly ministry," the bishop said.

"As a Church, we must care for the person who has been harmed as well as ensure that the community is confident that we are committed to the protection of children and young people. Along with his family and many friends, I am also praying for and will do all I can to be supportive of Father Haller as well."

Haller's letter to parishioners, printed on plain paper, was sent along with a one-page letter on church letterhead, dated Nov. 20 and signed by four members of the parish staff, that explained Haller's sudden departure. "It is with heavy hearts that we send you this letter," it began.'Painful and difficult news': The parish letter revealed that members of the parish staff, pastoral council and other parish leaders had met with Bishop Francis Christian and the Rev. Marc Guillemette from the diocese office last Wednesday. "At this meeting, we received the painful and difficult news that the Diocese has received a credible accusation of sexual misconduct with a female minor regarding our pastor, Father Jim Haller."

The letter went on to say that Haller had "acknowledged the accusation," and resigned as pastor "effective immediately." It was signed by Karen Garon, chair of the pastoral council; Shirley Delacoe, administrative assistant; Helene Belanger, director of religious education; and Claudette Martel, parish staff.

It stated that parish leaders were "shocked and saddened" at the news about Haller, "whom we have come to love and respect."

"He has been there for us in good times and bad times," it stated. "We will not forget the positive difference he has made in our parish family. It is imperative at this time that we come together as a parish community to continue the good works he enabled and encouraged us to do."

Yesterday morning, St. Peter's religious education program was holding a retreat for fourth-graders who will be making their First Confession, one of the church's seven sacraments, next month.

Helene Belanger was conducting the retreat. She referred questions about Haller to the diocese, saying only, "We all love him and miss him."'I'm betrayed': But several parents who came to pick up their children said more. "I would never have expected this. This is the man who baptized my children, did their First Communions," said one mother of two, who did not want her name used. "This is the man who came to my house when my son was born, and talked about baptism."

"I'm betrayed and I'm angry," she said. "I'm trying to teach my kids the difference between right and wrong. Do I really want him to go through with making his First Confession? What does he have to confess at (the age of) 10?"

Uppermost in her mind was a meeting Haller conducted just last weekend for the parents of children who will be receiving the sacrament. "He talked about what is a sin and what isn't," she recalled bitterly.

She said she did talk to her son about what happened, without going into detail. "I told him Father Jim broke the rules, and once you break the rules, you have to pay the price," she said. "I said his letter said he had a girlfriend -- if you can call a minor a girlfriend."

"I told him there are certain rules for priests. One of them is you can't get married, and you can't have a girlfriend ... And he broke the rules."'Let them get married': But another Manchester mother picking up her child from the retreat wondered if it's the rules that need to change.

"For God's sake, let them get married," said the woman, who also refused to give her name. "Let them have a normal life."

She said she did not tell her daughter about what happened.

And she said while she never suspected Haller had a dark secret in his past, she wasn't ultimately surprised at the revelation, given all the bad news surrounding the priesthood of late. "The saddest part of it is that it's not shocking," she said.

She thinks she knows why one revelation seems to follow on another over recent months. "I think people now feel they can speak up, whereas in the past -- two decades ago -- they felt they couldn't."

"Now that they feel they can, they are. More and more people are speaking up, whether for personal healing or some other reason."

As for Haller, even if the affair occurred some 20 years ago, the math still makes him look bad, she said. The idea of a man in his mid-40s having sexual contact with a girl who was at the most 17, "It's not good," she said.

The parish letter stated that the diocese "has assured us that they are doing all they can to be of assistance to the woman who has made the accusation, as she continues her healing process."

"They have also assured us that they will assist Father Jim through his own healing process," it went on.

Arsenault said the news was shocking for anyone who knew the charismatic priest.

"We live with the same paradox that other people do, that someone whom we've had all these superlative experiences of, we now believe did something that was terrible. And so we have to live with that, and trust that the Lord can heal the breach, as it were."'Profound suffering': Arsenault said Catholics must rely on their faith in Christ to lead them through such periods of darkness. "I think we're living an experience of really profound suffering in the life of the church, and it's a powerful mystery, but as people of faith, we have to be hopeful, despite the pain and darkness that comes with suffering, that there's new life."

"It would be humanly impossible to cope with this. We're really forced to rely on grace and healing from the Lord."

But the one mother said there are many memories of special occasions in her son's life that are now forever tainted.

"I'm going to look back at those pictures I have for the rest of his life, and now I'm not going to remember his First Communion or his baptism. I'm always going to look at those pictures and say, 'That bastard. What else did he do?'"

 
 

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