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Priest, Community Didn't Get to Say Goodbye

By Eric Gorski
The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
May 26, 2002

CHEYENNE WELLS - Under normal circumstances, Father Tom Kloppenborg would have said Elvira Ball's funeral Mass Wednesday night at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

He would have stood at the lectern and said a few kind words, and it would have been something special because he knew her well. The priest knew everyone in the 130-family parish in this predominantly Catholic farm town, and he knew quite a few folks outside the parish, too.

Another priest - one of Kloppenborg's best friends - drove 38 miles from Burlington and said the Mass instead.

For parishioners at Sacred Heart, normalcy ended last Sunday, when a priest from Colorado Springs read them a letter saying Kloppenborg had been removed because of what was described as sexual misconduct many years ago.

The same letter was read at the 30-family St. Augustine Parish in Kit Carson, 25 miles to the west, where Kloppenborg also said Mass on Sundays. Some women wept at the news.

The Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal, which has been centered in big cities, had reached Colorado's eastern plains.

Beyond the obvious shock, the community is hurting from the departure of a man who was admired widely.

As with Catholics everywhere these days, Kloppenborg's parishioners also are struggling with what constitutes just punishment when a priest stumbles. Only now, it's personal.

Of all the stories about Catholic priests that have come to light in recent months, Kloppenborg's may be unique.

Now 51, Kloppenborg admitted that prior to his ordination, when he was in his late teens, he had sexual relations with a boy in his midteens, according to a spokesman for Kloppenborg's order, the Vincentians. The order found out not because the younger boy reported it, but because Kloppenborg himself did years ago. Criminal charges were not filed.

The incident only came to light again after the order, responding to the national scandal, undertook a review of its personnel files. With the heightened sensitivities brought on by the scandal, the order thought it needed to remove Kloppenborg and give him a clerical job in St. Louis, away from parish life and children, the Vincentian spokesman said.

There is no evidence Kloppenborg was involved sexually with minors during his nine years in Colorado, church officials say.

About 17 miles west of the Kansas border, Cheyenne Wells is one of those innumerable Plains towns whose skylines are defined by grain elevators and white water towers.The town, population 900, boasts the Loop tavern, a couple of banks that close at 3:30 p.m., a bed and breakfast, a hospital, a John Deere dealership and the redbrick Cheyenne County Courthouse.

Nine years ago, Father Tom Kloppenborg arrived here from Missouri for his first job as a pastor. The Vincentians were founded to serve the rural poor. The order's Midwest Province in St. Louis contracted with the Colorado Springs and Pueblo dioceses to serve priest-poor rural communities.

A bear of a man with a white beard, Kloppenborg became part of the Catholic community and the community at large.

He made friends with other pastors, started a food pantry, attended softball games, went to school functions and baked cakes for the county fair, friends and parishioners said. He enjoyed golf and radio-control airplanes.

Kloppenborg led an effort to remodel the front of Sacred Heart, putting on a new stucco exterior, railings and a new ramp, an important feature in a church with many elderly people. The parish found the money even though the local economy has been hit hard by drought for four years.

Wednesday afternoon, before Elvira Ball's funeral, five women knelt at Sacred Heart and said the rosary together. The women come every week, mostly to pray for peace. None of them wanted their names used, but all had good things to say about Kloppenborg.

"He's had to do a lot of tough funeral Masses," one woman said. "He always made them very beautiful and personal."

The women agreed on one thing: Their faith would not be shaken, not by a priest scandal in an East Coast city, not by news that their own priest had admitted to doing wrong.

Twenty-five miles to the west, Gene Ward was cutting down a tree that had fallen onto the front lawn of St. Augustine's parish during a windstorm the night before. The 74-year-old retired farmer recalled the moment last Sunday when he learned Kloppenborg had been removed.

"It was like someone kicked me in the stomach," he said.

His granddaughter, 22-year-old Jenel Ward, said she served as an altar girl for Kloppenborg. She said she was shocked by the news, like everyone else. She thinks it was right for the church to remove Kloppenborg.

"It doesn't matter it happened before he was a priest," she said. "It still has to weigh heavily on his mind."

The Rev. Michael Ingersoll of First United Methodist Church in Cheyenne Wells broke bread with Kloppenborg at the priest's home and chatted with him at the post office.

When Kloppenborg was out of town, Ingersoll visited the Catholic patients at the local hospital. Kloppenborg looked in on the Methodist patients when Ingersoll was away.

Ingersoll said he was saddened when he heard about Kloppenborg's removal. He said it will be hard for the community to grieve because it never had the chance to say goodbye.

As he learned the details surrounding Kloppenborg's removal, Ingersoll said he has asked himself hard questions about forgiveness and the church.

"I'm wondering, 'Is there grace in the church?'" Ingersoll said.

He said it appears the church is more concerned about protecting itself financially.

"That's a really sad commentary on the church and on society," he said. "I'm troubled by that."

Kloppenborg's superiors considered the time that had elapsed and the fact the sexual relations took place before the priest's ordination, said the Rev. Tom Croak, a member of the Vincentian's Midwest provincial council and a history professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

He said removing Kloppenborg was appropriate.

"During another period, when something occurred like this, the methodology for dealing with it was different," Croak said. "We felt an obligation to the diocese, to the parish and to Tom in taking these steps. I don't look upon it as a punishment as much as a consequence."

On the day of his mother's funeral last week, Russell Ball took a moment to talk about his priest, parish and town.

Like most Cheyenne Wells residents, Ball has lived here all his life - 38 years. He grew up in a white brick house across the street from the church. He works for the John Deere store, where sales have fallen with the drought.

He said people are having trouble believing Kloppenborg would be part of a scandal, no matter how long ago it was.

He can understand why the Vincentians would follow a "one strike and you're out" policy on sexual misconduct.

"If it was a strike, that's fine," he said.

His memories of Kloppenborg will be of happier times, such as when the priest performed his brother's marriage. Or when he asked children to the altar for children's Mass.

"In a small community like this," Ball said, "we were very fortunate to have Father Tom."

 
 

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