Thorny Questions Have a Human Face
Teen-Age Mistake Leads to Transfer of Colorado Priest
By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
June 8, 2002
The Rev. Thomas Kloppenborg puts a human face on the questions facing Catholic bishops when they meet next week to develop a national sex abuse policy.
"Father Tom," a well-liked pastor in the Colorado Springs diocese, was abruptly sent from the two small parishes on the eastern plains that he had served for nine years to a desk job in St. Louis.
The cause was Kloppenborg's own words, written 30 years before in an exercise for his superiors. While studying to be a priest, he had had a brief sexual relationship with another teen-age boy.
The bearded priest, now 51, often went to parish bake fairs and softball games, and was a sensitive celebrant of funerals, according to a local newspaper account.
But this spring his religious superiors culled old files, looking for evidence of past sexual misconduct.
The only such document they found was Kloppenborg's - an account he wrote as a struggling teen-age seminarian. In it, he admitted that he had a short, consensual relationship with a boy. Kloppenborg at the time was in his late teens, while the other boy was in his mid-teens.
Since then, Kloppenborg has remained free of any scandal, according to church spokesman Paul Zemitzsch.
However, his superiors decided not only must Kloppenborg leave his parishes, but also everyone would have to know why.
In May, a letter was read at Kloppenborg's two parishes, Sacred Heart in Cheyenne Wells, and St. Augustine in Kit Carson.
Some people wept at the news, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
While he remains a priest in good standing, Kloppenborg's removal raises the kind of questions that bishops will grapple with this week at their national convention in Dallas.
Among them: Should the policy target a priest with an otherwise excellent record? Should a man's own revelations, written to help him surmount personal failings, be used against him?
Zemitzsch agreed that the policy that exposed Kloppenborg is quite stringent.
"On the other side of that, if you were a parishioner, wouldn't you want to know? ... Leaving them in the dark isn't to anyone's benefit," he said.
Kloppenborg joined about 175 American priests among the nation's 46,000 who have been swept up in the scandal.
Zemitzsch said Kloppenborg is not taking interview requests.
"Obviously, the incident was extremely unfortunate," Zemitzsch said a few days after Kloppenborg's removal."
Among the types of issues the bishops will discuss this week:
Should a 30-year-old moral lapse be enough to remove an otherwise good priest?
One proposal calls for immediate removal if there's ongoing sexual abuse. But it would allow leeway if the cases are old or a matter of a one-time event.
The Kloppenborg case points up possible ambiguities. His teen-age review left it unclear, Zemitzsch said, whether it was actually a consensual relationship - "it was only (his) point of view.
If the priest has lived an otherwise exemplary life, should old revelations be made public?
"By the trust imparted to him, dismissing a priest isn't like dismissing a carpenter or a brick mason," Zemitzsch said. "We wouldn't go into graphic detail, but we've also seen what happens when you don't tell."
Would using old documents discourage seminarians from being honest with their superiors?
"First of all, this kind of behavior isn't acceptable" in a future priest, Zemitzsch said. "Everyone entering the priesthood should (already) know right from wrong.
In Kloppenborg's case, "it was not privileged information, and he wasn't surprised . . . He's known for years this was out there."
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