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  Homecoming Celebration
Priest Returns to St. Paschal's after Being Cleared of Sexual Abuse

By Virginia de Leon
Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)
February 24, 2003

They wept with joy at the sight of their priest.

''We love you, Father Dan," a man cried out during Mass at St. Paschal Roman Catholic Church.

''Praise the Lord, he is with us again."

For the first time in three months, the Rev. Dan Wetzler wore a flowing green chasuble and stood before the altar on Sunday morning and celebrated Mass in public.

Wrongly accused of sexual abuse, the 65-year-old priest was temporarily removed from ministry three months ago by Bishop William Skylstad. He was reinstated last week, exonerated of the claim that he had abused a boy more than 30 years ago.

His homecoming was an emotional event - one that brought sighs of relief and tears to the eyes of men and women who never once doubted that their beloved priest was innocent.

As sunlight filtered through the church's stained-glass windows Sunday morning, hundreds crowded into the pews and filled the balcony to welcome Wetzler home.

Not even at Christmas or Easter have parishioners seen so many people at their church. Some drove from as far as Othello and Connell to this Spokane Valley parish to greet Wetzler - to embrace him, to hear his words, to receive communion from his hands.

When his photo appeared on the large monitor at the side of the altar, the throng of people immediately stood up to give him a standing ovation. ''Welcome back Father Dan," a sign flashed seconds later.

As they sang in praise, the peal of voices rose to the high ceilings: ''For you are my God, you are my joy. Defend me, oh Lord."

Standing before the congregation, Wetzler could hardly speak at first - choked up with tears and deeply touched by the overwhelming show of support.

''I'm a bit nervous this morning," he said, his words followed by more applause.

He told parishioners that instead of celebrating Mass at the altar, he had spent the last three months sitting in the pews with 35 others in a tiny church in Harrison, Idaho.

''I've been on a roller coaster," he said. ''It has stopped." Again, the people clapped their hands. ''Isn't God good?"

Wetzler, who became a priest 39 years ago, was the pastor at St. Paschal's for 10 years until he retired last July. After the surprise retirement party that the parish threw for him last year, an older man at church warned him that the first year of retirement was going to be tough. ''What a prophet he is," quipped the priest, who shared other anecdotes that made the crowd laugh.

Wetzler's tone became more serious as he thanked the people for their letters of encouragement and for standing by him during the darkest time of his priestly life.

''You have brought to my life so much more than I could ever bring to your life," he said.

Like the paralyzed man who met Jesus in Sunday's Gospel reading, Wetzler said he too felt a numbness. For three months, nothing made sense to him. At times, he had to learn to suppress his anger.

''The Lord wants to remind you and me that he is faithful," Wetzler emphasized, ''that he is merciful ... that he is gracious ... that he will never disown his own."

After the 90-minute Mass, St. Pascal's parishioners and others from throughout the Spokane Diocese formed a long line outside the church so each person could speak to the priest.

Ray Perry, a St. Paschal's parishioner for 30 years, was elated to hear the news that Wetzler was innocent.''Father Dan is a great priest. We are all tremendously happy," she said.

Outside the church, the sun continued to shine and warmed the smiling face of Kathleen Tsipras.

''The Lord prevailed," she said with excitement. ''Praise God! Thank him for Father Dan."

 
 

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