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  At Corpus Christi, Dismissal Reactions Run Gamut

By Karen Herzog
Bismarck Tribune (North Dakota)
March 29, 2002

The Church of Corpus Christi is grieving.

Leo Reinbold, a 20-year member of Corpus Christi, believed it when his bishop called the removal of two Bismarck Diocese priests the most difficult thing he has ever done in his life.

Corpus Christi's pastor, the Rev. Steve Zastoupil, was one of two priests removed for decades-old incidents of child molestation. For the past 24 years, Zastoupil had served as priest of Corpus Christi, whose 1,450 families make it the largest Catholic church in Bismarck-Mandan, by most counts.

Last weekend, Corpus Christi members were shocked at parish meetings and Masses when a letter of confession and resignation from Zastoupil was read by Bishop Paul Zipfel of the Bismarck Diocese.

A Sunday night meeting was very crowded, the mood quiet, tense, then angry and tearful, Reinbold said.

Probably the major reaction was 'the bishop has spoken, he takes his direction from the Council of Bishops, he believes what he did, he had to do now,' Reinbold said.

Another camp, 'vociferous and emotional,' believed the action removing Zastoupil could have been delayed past Holy Week, or even long enough to complete the major building project under way at Corpus Christi, he said.

Another group felt the removal could have waited until a 'decent, respectable retirement' could be arranged for Zastoupil, Reinbold said.

Curtis Jundt, a charter member of Corpus Christi, was at the meeting following the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday. He agrees with the pope's zero tolerance stance and supports the bishop in 'a most difficult decision, one he had to make.'

After the pope's recent statement decrying the abuse of children, Jundt said, 'If you would have asked us to name any possible (clergy involved), Father Steve would have been one of the last.'

Unlike the situation in Crosby, where parishioners already knew about decades-old molestation accusations against their priest before the bishop's action, 'we were not previously made aware of such acts,' Jundt said.

The abruptness of having Zastoupil say Masses one week and be out of contact the next added to the shock, Jundt said.

'It isn't like the diocese just found out,' he said. These charges are very old, he said, and the diocese kept Zastoupil in service for a lot of years.

'He worked his heart out,' Jundt said. 'He was not a threat a month ago, or a year ago, why so quickly rush him out of town? He was treated as though it was just found out.'

Zastoupil's letter confessed to 'transgressions with minors' 31 years ago, Jundt said.

'We all had the impression that he paid for that. I think, given the opportunity, he would have made the same confession and bid us farewell, shared tears and said goodbye -- a more humane way,' he said.

There was no particular reason for dismissing the priests just before Holy Week, said Joel Melarvie, the diocese communications director. While some were angry, others commended the bishop for personally breaking the news to the parish, he said.

The bishop referred all media inquiries to Melarvie, who said that Zipfel's decision came upon his return from meeting with the American bishops about two weeks ago. That gathering convinced him that this was the appropriate action and now was the time, Melarvie said.

People wanted details of Zastoupil's transgression, Reinbold said -- when, who, what happened?

Zastoupil's letter didn't disclose those details, Melarvie said. The point is not whether some types of molestation are worse than others, but that it shouldn't happen at all, he said.

Reinbold hopes some time in the future, meaningful work can be found for Zastoupil.

'He's too young and too talented to wither on the vine,' he said.

Retirement is probably Zastoupil's only option, Jundt said. Zastoupil has been stripped of his faculties, which means that, though still a priest, he may not celebrate Mass in public.

For now, the Rev. Dennis Schafer, the diocese's director of vocations, will fill in at Corpus Christi.

Church leaders already have met with Schafer, said Joe Mathern, a deacon at Corpus Christi since 1992. Mathern is optimistic.

'Any time we have a trial like (this), people come together,' he said. 'Like 9-11, people dig down and find they have responsibility and will act on that.'

Last Sunday was difficult, Mathern said, 'But there's more to the church than this. I'm really impressed how people have rallied.'

One parishioner told Melarvie that the parish is, in fact, grieving three losses. During the church's reconstruction project, when services were moved to Horizon Middle School, they lost their familiar worship space. In September 2001, Bob Schuller, a stable, solid presence who helped guide the project, died of cancer. And now Father Steve is gone.

Some in the parish are concerned that people who worshiped elsewhere during the construction might now be gone for good. Some hard feelings already had surfaced about the project's cost, Jundt said. Now the question is, 'Is this going to drive people further away?'

This Easter has a dark cloud, he said, but still, 'we need to put that aside and focus on what Easter's all about.'

'As difficult as (the decision) is,' Mathern said, 'this is for the good of the church over the long pull. (The bishop) took the step to protect children in the future, to restore credibility.'

 
 

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