Parish Vents Emotions over Priest's Removal
At Blessed Sacrament's Masses, Suspicions about Sexual Conduct Confirmed
By Jennie Tunkieicz and Tom Heinen
Journal Sentinel Online
Auguast 25, 2002
Left in doubt for more than a month about why their pastor suddenly left, parishioners at Blessed Sacrament Parish reacted Sunday with prayer, sadness, acceptance and frustration to the announcement at weekend Masses that his departure involved past sexual contact with a minor.
"I guess I was worried because no one was saying anything about the reason for his leave of absence," said Annamarie Pleier, who attended the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday with her husband and infant. "I thought the archdiocese handled it the best way they can."
Pleier credited the pastor - Father James N. Jablonowski - with leading the effort to build a new gymnasium in celebration of the church's 75th anniversary.
"I don't think it would have been built without him," she said.
Some parishioners, however, who spoke to reporters but didn't want to be identified, were concerned that the archdiocese was too slow to reveal the reason that Jablonowski had been absent from the south side church, 3100 S. 41st St.
The archdiocese announced Saturday night that it received two separate allegations of sexual contact with a minor against Jablonowski on May 16 and May 21. Those allegations were forwarded on May 23 to the Milwaukee County district attorney, who returned the cases on May 31 without starting a prosecution, according to an archdiocesan news release.
Both incidents happened more than 20 years ago, apparently too old to prosecute under the state statute of limitations.
The archdiocese began setting up a formal process for determining guilt or innocence in cases that are not prosecuted by appointing former Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John Fiorenza as an independent adjudicator on June 29.
In the meantime, Jablonowski, who had been away from the parish since mid-June, was placed on temporary leave on July 18. That was announced to the parish at Sunday Masses the weekend of July 21, but no reasons were given.
Fiorenza submitted a final report last Wednesday in which he concluded that the allegations were true. Jablonowski was informed Thursday that, in keeping with the archdiocese's zero-tolerance policy, he was being removed from active ministry.
Adjudicator's first case
It is unclear how many other cases Fiorenza is examining. He could not be reached for comment Sunday. Jablonowski's was the first case Fiorenza handled.
Jerry Topczewski, communications director for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, said that while a special lay commission continues its work on recommendations on procedures, including those dealing with sexual misconduct allegations, each allegation is being handled on a case-by-case basis. The commission, appointed by former Archbishop Rembert Weakland, is expected to issue a final report in mid-September.
Revealing to the parish no more than the fact that a priest is on a leave of absence, as in the case of Blessed Sacrament, allows for the allegations to be examined before a priest's reputation is sullied.
"Clearly, in today's climate, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to restore a priest's reputation," Topczewski said of potentially false allegations. "At the same time, this also respects what victim advocates have said, which is you cannot leave a priest with a past allegation in ministry roles while the investigation goes on. We are trying to find some balance."
Six priests whom the archdiocese acknowledged early this year to still be in active ministry with old, credible allegations of sexual abuse either have retired or will have been removed from active ministry as of today. A seventh priest, whose file surfaced in May, was told about a week ago that he was being removed from his parish in Whitewater, effective today.
At Blessed Sacrament, Father Robert D. Turner, associate pastor, told the nearly 400 parishioners at the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday that they had known as much as he had known after Jablonowski went on the leave of absence.
"I have some sad news," said Turner, who has been named the parish's temporary administrator. "About a month ago I told you Father Jablonowski was taking a leave of absence. That was the information I was given at the time from the archdiocese. I was called in Friday by Bishop (Richard J.) Sklba and was given a statement from the archdiocese to be read at all of the Masses."
Turner said he was assured by the archdiocese that all of the parish's needs would be met.
"I had a long talk with Bishop Sklba," Turner said. "I promise to keep you informed of any future developments, but, unfortunately, you will probably read about it first.
"Let us pray for Father Jablonowski and ourselves at this time," Turner said.
Priest known as friendly
Pat Rehl said after the Mass that most parishioners has suspicions about Jablonowski's leave. Nevertheless, it was shocking, given the type of person Jablonowski was, he said.
"He was very friendly, very nice. He would come out here and talk to all of us," Rehl said of Jablonowski.
Rehl, principal at Whitman Elementary School, a Milwaukee public school, said the ongoing scandal is difficult for Catholics and difficult to understand from the perspective as an educator.
"It's hard for me to understand that these things happen. It makes you question what is going on," he said.
Father Tim Kitzke, pastor of Three Holy Women Parish, acknowledged that recent controversies in the church have hurt many Catholics.
Jablonowski previously served at St. Hedwig Church, one of the congregations that make up Three Holy Women, before coming to Blessed Sacrament.
Kitzke told his congregation at St. Hedwig Sunday morning that the first step toward healing was prayer.
"We obviously have to pray for the people who have been hurt or abused by the clergy or the church," he said. "We just have to pray, pray, pray."
One parishioner at Blessed Sacrament said that while what Jablonowski did was wrong, the media should stop persecuting priests.
"It is a sin to scandalize priests," Dorothy Tipple said, pointing to a poem about priests that says, "He is another Christ - respect him."
Kelly Wells of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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