Priest Cleared of Abuse
The Rev. Fischer's Own Admissions Were the Only Evidence
By Stephen J. Lee
Grand Forks Herald
May 11, 2002
There is no case against the Catholic priest who recently admitted to - then recanted - sexually abusing children while he lived in Drayton, N.D., Pembina County State's Attorney Barbara Whelan announced Friday.
After a three-month investigation into admissions made by the Rev. Charles Fischer Jr., that he sexually abused several children in Pembina County, "I have concluded that there is no evidence to corroborate the claim," Whelan said in a news release. "No criminal charges will be filed against Father Fischer."
It closes a strange case - especially in the context of the current nationally reported scandal of sexual abuse by priests over the past 40 years. The only evidence of sexual misconduct was the priest's own admission, which he later withdrew, citing mental illness.
In a statement he gave to the bishop of the Fargo diocese, Samuel Aquila, in late April, Fischer indicated he was not a pedophile, saying "I have never abused a child and have no inclination to do so." Fischer initially claimed to have sexually molested children in February after two suicide attempts and during an emotional breakdown, Whelan said in her news release Friday.
HOSPITALIZED IN FARGO IN FEBRUARY AND HAVING ATTEMPTED SUICIDE TWICE WITHIN FOUR DAYS, FISCHER TOLD BISHOP AQUILA, HEAD OF THE CATHOLIC DIOCESE OF FARGO, THAT HE HAD ENGAGED IN SEXUAL MISCONDUCT WITH SEVERAL CHILDREN.
He gave names and places. They included four families in North Dakota and three in other states, as well as children in Egypt, in abuse that dated back to 1985, Whelan said.
Aquila notified law enforcement, and an investigation began, headed by Whelan and conducted by the state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The three out-of-state families involved abuse that Fischer said occurred in Wisconsin and Texas to children of families he knew there. Those three families, who now live in Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas, were contacted, as was law enforcement. Wisconsin officials closed their case, citing insufficient evidence. Whelan said Texas officials have not informed her of the status of that investigation.
Of the four families Fischer identified as his victims in Pembina County, three were interviewed by law enforcement officials; the fourth family could not be located.
Children deny One of the three families allowed "forensic interviews" of their two children Fischer said he abused between 1995 and 2000. Forensic interviewers are trained in talking to children in sex abuse investigations. The two children denied knowledge of any abuse by Fischer.
Two of the families declined to have their children undergo the rather involved forensic interviews, saying they saw no need, since Fischer never had the opportunity to abuse them and there was no indication he had done so.
Parents in all three families said they could not think of any instances when Fischer had the opportunity to molest their children, nor was there any indication of abuse.
A fifth family, now living in Grand Forks, came forward and told investigators that one of their two children told them Fischer had molested the two children while they lived in Pembina and attended his parish. The family was the only one who came forward of their own accord; this family was not named by Fischer as being his victims. This family also contacted the Herald about the alleged abuse.
During a forensic interview at MeritCare Hospital in Fargo, the two children from Grand Forks denied any abuse, and investigators concluded it never happened, Whelan said.
'Very sick' Whelan said the investigation revealed that Fischer "is a very sick man," who made his "confession," in "the midst of a severe emotional breakdown," and after two suicide attempts within four days.
He had made a very similar admission and recantation a decade ago in Italy, Whelan said.
The parents themselves of the children Fischer initially named as his victims never believed the stories and think his mental illness caused the untrue admissions, Whelan said.
Whelan said she had reviewed Fischer's hospitalization records "which indicate the depth of Father Fischer's mental illness. While there are many questions about Father Fischer and his actions which may never be answered, it is clear to me that he is a very sick man," she said.
Bishop Aquila released a statement Friday evening saying he was relieved no children had been harmed by Fischer and apologized to the families for "the suffering that they have had to endure during the investigation."
Although earlier, a diocesan official said that whatever the result of the investigation Fischer would never serve as a priest again in the diocese, Aquila seemed to leave that door open Friday.
"(G)iven these admissions and then the recantation of them by Father Fischer, it will continue to be necessary that Father Fischer receive therapy, and he will not be placed back into the ministry at this time," Aquila said in the news release.
In an interview Friday, Aquila told the Herald he will listen to medical experts about Fischer's ability to return to work.
"In the future, we will have to wait to see what the counselors have to say," Aquila said. "Certainly, the advice they give us will be scrutinized and reviewed. And also, I would very much be straightforward with people, should he in the future return to the ministry, about the concerns and would be speaking with them if he should return to ministry."
Aquila pledged to "always deal with these matters truthfully and straightforward in dealing with the civil authorities."
Aquila presided Friday over the graduation ceremonies and festivities at Cardinal Muench Seminary where Fischer had taught.
Whelan praised the families for their "tremendous strength in light of the media attention given to this case."
She also said Aquila and other diocesan officials "took appropriate steps in reporting their concerns to authorities, and the Church did not attempt to circumvent or undermine the criminal investigation."
"I express my appreciation to these officials for their ethical and responsible handling of this complex situation," Whelan said.
Parishioners seemed to be in agreement that they never believed Fischer could have done what he first said he did.
"He was well liked," said Jean Charbonneau, of Pembina, after learning Fischer had recanted his original admissions. "We heard nothing of any bad behavior."
Like many, she blamed it on his health.
"He was sick when he got here and was taking medications," Charbonneau said. "But we never heard any bad reports."
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