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  It's Hard to Keep Tabs on Abusive Priests

By Philip Elliott elliottp@courierpress.com
Evansville Courier & Press [Kentucky]
March 21, 2004

Almost two years ago, Evansville Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger removed three Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse of minors. Their careers crushed and reputations ruined, the trio left the area and attempted to start new lives.

One priest had worked as a community outreach official with a private health care agency in Nashville, Tenn. He resigned the post earlier this month after his employer learned of his past.

Another landed in Kuwait working with a contractor linked to the U.S. military. He has been reported celebrating Mass in Kuwait. The third had worked at a bookstore in suburban Nashville. He shares an address in an apartment building with a Christian ministry.

They left the diocese, but never the clergy - they were never formally removed from the priesthood. A church mechanism to force them to give up their ordination was issued from the Vatican just last month, almost two years after stories of rampant abuse became public. No system is in place to track these priests, despite Gettelfinger's urging to other bishops to develop an internal tracking system. Background checks do not highlight the past allegations, and the priests never were charged in the criminal system because the statute of limitations had expired, evidence was not compelling or the law did not forbid such contact.

Efforts to change these shortcomings have been tabled or rejected.

It is a system fraught with failures, but church leaders have been hesitant to correct these flaws, many of them rooted in a desire to protect the priests: the Rev. Mark Kurzendoerfer, the Rev. Michael Allen and the Rev. Richard J. Wildeman.

Such perceived reluctance has been a contentious topic for those who were abused.

"Gettelfinger has never wavered in his support of this guy (Allen), and that is damning of Gettelfinger in my opinion," said David Prunty, who was abused by Allen.

"He does not deserve the title of bishop. He should resign."

Kurzendoerfer was forced to leave the priesthood because of an admitted relationship with a 14-year-old boy more than 20 years ago. When Gettelfinger was named bishop and first found out about the abuse in 1990, he told Kurzendoerfer he could not live alone and never could have a youth ministry. Kurzendoerfer also was temporarily removed from parish service to attend counseling and treatment. Gettelfinger assigned him as an associate pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Haubstadt, Ind. During that time, he was accused of sexually abusing his nephew, then a minor. And two years ago he was accused of having private counseling sessions with some students.

Charges could not be filed against Kurzendoerfer because his nephew, 17 at the time of the incident, was old enough to consent under Indiana law.

Rick Kurzendoerfer met with diocesan officials and spoke with concern about his uncle's actions.

After meetings with the bishop and diocesan officials, that complaint faded.

"It just kind of dropped," said Rick Kurzendoerfer, now 23 and an Indiana Army National Guard veteran of the war in Iraq.

Rick Kurzendoerfer did not press charges in a criminal court because he said he didn't know he had the option. He was offered counseling, but he said the diocese recanted that offer.

It was not until the nephew's complaints became public that some parents at Sts. Peter and Paul Church learned that Mark Kurzendoerfer was not supposed to meet with children alone. They complained the priest was having private counseling sessions with some students - a direct violation of the bishop's orders.

When parents confronted Gettelfinger, he removed Mark Kurzendoerfer from active ministry.

He relocated to the Nashville area, finding a job as manager of development for Home Health Care of Middle Tennessee, a for-profit corporation providing nurses, rehabilitation therapists and medical social workers to homebound residents. His employer learned two weeks ago of his past when a Courier & Press reporter spoke with administrator Julia Ford.

Two days later, Kurzendoerfer resigned that position, citing personal reasons.

"He did something before I could do something," said Julia Ford.

She said she would have fired Kurzendoerfer if he hadn't resigned first. "We'd have found something."

Ford said Kurzendoerfer told her that he was moving back to Indiana.

She said she had understood he came from Oklahoma.

"I'd never heard of Evansville, Indiana," she said. Ford said she knew Kurzendoerfer was an inactive priest but thought it was a personality conflict that prompted his departure, and she never pressed him for details.

"I never knew why he left the priesthood," Ford said. "I thought it was personal, between him and the bishop."

Ford took the helm of the agency in April 2003. Kurzendoerfer, who started in October 2002, already was in place. In his former role, Kurzendoerfer focused on community education, marketing and public relations.

The company screens prospective employees, but Kurzendoerfer's past was not included in the report because his alleged abuse never was handled by police. No criminal record exists. State inspectors did not note Kurzendoerfer's employment in their 24-page report of an October on-site survey.

"We don't have a law that requires them to do background checks," said Katy Gammon, director of the Tennessee Department of Health's Division of Health Care Facilities. "Most of our facilities do background checks on their employees."

The state report included violations such as failing to inform patients of financial liabilities and failing to maintain personnel files, according to the state policies. Mark Kurzendoerfer did not return calls seeking comment.

Allen is working in Kuwait, but specifics about his work are unclear.

Gettelfinger said Allen is working in a civilian commissary, on contract with the U.S. military.

Glenn Flood, spokesman for the office of the Secretary of Defense, said the Pentagon does not track individuals working under those contracts and could not confirm what - if anything - Allen is doing there.

"We don't demand to know everyone by name," Flood said.

It would be nearly impossible.

So far, the Pentagon has awarded 1,500 contracts worth $9.7 billion in awards to companies working in the rebuilding of Iraq, said Army Maj. Gary Tallman. Of those, the Pentagon has awarded $1.3 billion through 1,300 contracts within Iraq's borders.

But Allen's victim, Prunty, said he has heard the priest has slipped back into the ministry, and claims Allen celebrated Mass for U.S. soldiers last Easter.

"Several soldiers recognized him," Prunty said, citing conversations with one of the soldier's mothers.

He declined to provide the soldier's or the mother's names. Through Prunty, they declined to comment.

If Allen were to celebrate Mass privately or if individuals requested him to lead them, that would be permissible, Gettelfinger said.

"He has every right to say Mass."

Allen, too, has not yet been compelled to re-enter the laity and surrender his ordination.

"It's happening elsewhere, I have no doubts," Prunty said. "This isn't a loophole. This is defiance."

Allen had been affiliated with the Archdiocese of the U.S. Military, but that relationship ended in 1993.

"He might be in Kuwait, but he's not working with the archdiocese," said Vicar for Chaplains and Vocations and Auxiliary Bishop John J. Kaising. "He's not doing a thing with the archdiocese."

Wildeman voluntarily left the ministry after admitting to sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old girl who came to him for counseling more than 20 years ago. He now lives in Nashville.

He had worked until a few weeks ago at a suburban Nashville Barnes & Noble, a manager there said.

An individual responding to an interview request declined comment on Wildeman's behalf. Wildeman's telephone does not accept incoming calls.

The management of Valley Ridge Apartments - the building listed as his address - would not answer questions about Wildeman.

His Presence Restoration Ministries also shares Wildeman's street address. Phone messages left on the ministry's answering machine were not returned.

Because neither Catholic church nor civil authorities maintain a registry for accused priests, background checks on these individuals turned up no references.

"That's why we plea with victims and their families to place them in the civil system," Gettelfinger said.

Yet, in Rick Kurzendoerfer's case, it did no good because he was 17 at the time and, according to the law, old enough to consent to such behavior.

When church officials removed the priests, they did not force the accused to relinquish their clerical standing.

"We believe, in the Roman Catholic Church, a priest is a priest until death," Gettelfinger said.

Until this month, bishops lacked the power to force a priest to leave the service or take away his right to celebrate Mass.

Only in February 2004 did the Vatican release its how-to guide to deal with these priests.

"Rome is taking an awfully long time. ... We've been asking for it for a very long time," Gettelfinger said.

Gettelfinger's call for tracking, considered to be inadequate by his critics, technically could have been ruled inappropriate under church law.

"They could've taken me to court right then, church court," he said.

Gettelfinger said he and other bishops instead waited to see the fallout from the scandal.

Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report describing the extent and nature of more than 50 years of abuse.

New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice compiled the statistical study, revealing 10,667 claims of abuse from 1950 to 2002. Those complaints were lodged against 4,392 priests - about 4 percent of the priests who served during that period. Now, Gettelfinger said, he would move forward with removing these priests from pastoral service on a permanent basis, employing Vatican guidelines.

To this point, the priests were instructed not to publically represent themselves as clergy. But that's not to say they could never pose as a priest again in private.

Until this month, the only realistic way a priest could no longer be a priest was to petition the Vatican for laicization. So far, none has.

A laicized priest could be married, but if an individual has no aspirations of marriage or a life in the church, there is no incentive to go through the process.

A wave of petitions is not without precedent, but for different reasons. "In the late 1960s, we had a lot of guys walk off and get married, then they would do the paperwork," Gettelfinger said.

But many priests, such as those Gettelfinger removed, might just not care.

"If you don't care about the church anymore and don't have any intention of paying attention to it or following the disciplines of the church, (you would not petition)," said Paul Leingang, director of communications for the Evansville diocese. "Someone who seeks to live a life outside the church probably would not seek a declaration from the church."

A third option, which Gettelfinger described as practically impossible, would allow a challenge to the ordination's validity. But so few petitions make their way to the Vatican each year, the former priests are out there and still ordained.

Gettelfinger twice has proposed an internal tracking system for accused priests to his colleagues.

"If there was a way of tracking these men on a registry, at least the other bishops would know," Gettelfinger said. "I could have people living here in the diocese and I'd never know it."

The idea of a tracking system has met resistance from other bishops who fear legal ramifications for accusations that never entered the civil system.

For example, none of the Evansville priests ever entered formal civil proceedings. Police and church officials cannot monitor their moves in their new cities. They are not included on state sex offender registries because they never were convicted of sex crimes.

Gettelfinger said he does not know of any accused priests who have moved into his diocese, but he cannot say with certainty because bishops nationwide have been uncooperative.

Gettelfinger has notified the bishops of the diocese where he thinks the removed priests are now living, but he is an exception. Most bishops have closely guarded the identities of the accused priests, and few have released the names publicly.

Gettelfinger's proposal might garner more support now that the National Review Board specifically has suggested bishops place victims' rights ahead of priests' rights. That has drawn the ire of victims.

"Before 2002, all these men were working and he knew about their histories. For (Gettelfinger) to be advocating a tracking system is ludicrous," Prunty said.

Gettelfinger's efforts to keep tabs on these priests are practical as well as idealistic. Even though they are not supposed to be in active ministry and have left the Diocese of Evansville, they remain priests under the bishop's responsibility.

When priests take their vows, they are incardinated to their sponsoring diocese.

"He belongs to the territory," Gettelfinger said. "We have no such thing as a free-lance priest."

A priest can ask to be shifted or can pastor outside the diocese either temporarily or permanently. For instance, the Rev. Anthony Kissel serves on the faculty of Florida's Saint Leo University, but his link to the Evansville diocese has not been severed.

"I am still responsible to him and he is responsible to me," Gettelfinger said.

Yet the proposal falls short for Prunty, now living in California.

"The people who are tracking these folks shouldn't be the folks who protected them for so many years," he said. "It's the most hypocritical thing."

Rick Kurzendoerfer said he doubts a tracking system would work.

"Sooner or later, they're going to get dropped," he said. "These are people with serious problems. It's going to take time. They have to be proactive."

 
 

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