Neither Simple nor Clear
Grand Forks Family's Story Tells Complexity of Abuse Investigation
By Stephen J. Lee
Grand Forks Herald
March 31, 2002
A Grand Forks man has told authorities his children may have been victims of the former Drayton, N.D., priest who admitted to sexual misconduct with children.
The man, whose name the Herald is not publishing to protect the identity of his children, said that after an interview with investigators, his children were cleared of being victims.
However, the story illustrates the difficult nature of such an investigation.
The Rev. Charles Fischer last month told Bishop Samuel Aquila he had committed sexual misconduct with several children, including some while he was a priest in Drayton and Pembina, N.D.
Fischer, who is seriously ill, according to Aquila, first made the admissions during counseling at a Fargo hospital.
He repeated the admissions to Aquila, who immediately removed him from his job teaching theology at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo, and removed his ability to perform priestly functions. Church officials also turned over the information to law enforcement and social service officials.
NOT ON 'LIST'
The Grand Forks family was not named by Fischer as being on his list of victims, said Barbara Whelan, Pembina County state's attorney.
But the family did contact law enforcement after the story of Fischer's admissions became public, and the two children were interviewed at Fargo's MeritCare Hospital, Whelan said. The Grand Forks family is the only one investigators interviewed that was not named by Fischer, Whelan said.
The man contacted the Herald recently and said his son told him, after news of Fischer's admissions was reported, that the priest had touched him. The family lived in Pembina until 1999, the man said, and his son and daughter, now in early elementary grades, attended religious education classes and worship services at Assumption parish, where Fischer was the priest.
Church officials also had not heard of the Grand Forks family until the family contacted law enforcement officials, said Monsignor Wendelyn Vetter, vicar general of the Fargo diocese.
The alleged victims Fischer named include children of from his circle of family and friends in other states, outside of any church connections, and one family in Drayton, Vetter said. All of those families were contacted by church officials, told of Fischer's admissions, and the information was given to social service and law enforcement officials, Vetter said.
None of the families contacted by the diocese knew anything of the alleged abuse by Fischer, Vetter said. The state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation is leading the investigation. Kathy Murray, the BCI agent who was in Fargo March 22 for the interviews of the Grand Forks children, said she can't comment on the investigation. Her supervisor, Jeff White, in Bismarck, explained, in general terms, how carefully the forensic interviews of young children are done in cases of alleged sexual abuse.
The main purpose of forensic interviews is to only have the children interviewed one time, if possible, White said, to get as much as possible (at that interview) so they don't get interviewed by local police, by detectives, by Bureau agents.
The Grand Forks man said his son told him that Fischer had touched him and also molested the boy's sister, the man said. But his sister denies it, said the man.
He wasn't sure, before the forensic interview, if his son was a victim of Fischer or not, the man said. If something happened, they are going to pay, the man, a law student at UND, told the Herald, speaking of church officials.
But after the boy was interviewed by investigators, the father said, investigators told him they doubted his children were victims of Fischer. He was cleared, the man said of his son. They said maybe he heard it through school.
Those close to the investigation, while unable to comment on specific cases, said it's unlikely any firm conclusions would be reported immediately after a forensic interview.
Not that simple
Although people might think that with an admission by the priest, the case should be resolved quickly, it's not that simple, Whelan said.
The forensic interviews of children who potentially have been sexually abused are complicated, because the issue is often obscure and/or traumatic to young children, Whelan said. Young children are open to suggestion, so interviewers are careful how they ask about things, she said.
The interviewers ask very open-ended questions that are not leading in nature, Whelan said. Just because a child does not say 'a, b, c, or d' happened, doesn't mean the forensic interview will conclude it didn't happen.
Young victims of sexual abuse sometimes don't remember it until years later, and the statute of limitations on such crimes can run for years, so the interviews are done in that light, Whelan said.
My office is not pressuring law enforcement to rush to judgment, Whelan said. We want to do what's right.
Questioned by the Herald, the Grand Forks father said, I don't know. All I know is we are very pleased that this whole thing turned out the way it did.
Fischer, meanwhile, has retained an attorney and the diocese no longer can communicate with him outside of the lawyer-to-lawyer relationship, Vetter said.
We advise the priest for his own sake, where the good of the diocese is different that that of the priest, to get your own lawyer and pay for your own lawyer. And we have our own lawyer. It sort of breaks the connection of the priest to the diocese, officially speaking.
We do not see him, we can't talk to him, Vetter said.
In any case, Fischer won't be working as a priest again in the diocese.
Even if ... he did not abuse anybody, we still could not take that chance in the future, so we cannot restore his faculties, Vetter said.
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