Time of Shock
Parishioners React to Priest's Sudden Removal
By Jessica Langdon
Times Record News [Texas]
December 16, 2006
Delfina Martinez has attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church for 75 years. It's the church where her husband, Agapito - "Pete" - was baptized in 1927.
She expects sadness to touch this weekend's Masses, and she also hopes the services will shed some light on the situation that stunned her when she heard it Thursday night. Bishop Kevin Vann with the Diocese of Fort Worth removed Father Gilbert Albert Pansza - Father Gil - from active ministry after church leaders discovered an admission in his file concerning an incident of sexual abuse in the 1970s.
"I was very, very shocked. Very shocked," Martinez said. "I thought, 'Why didn't we know about this before?'"
Pansza, 55, was ordained as a priest in May 2000. He came to Our Lady of Guadalupe in July, after serving as pastor from August 2002 to June 2006 for churches in Bridgeport, Decatur and Jacksboro.
Jeff Hensley, communications director for the diocese, answered questions Friday about why Pansza was allowed to become a priest with that information in his file.
He said the people consulting with the bishop - at the time, Bishop Joseph P. Delaney, who died in 2005 - decided that a long enough period of time had passed since the incident was said to have happened that there was not a danger of a repeat incident.
That line of thinking has changed since then, Hensley said. "Any incident of child sexual abuse indicates that people are not safe. Our desire is to protect our people."
Vann said in a press conference Thursday, the day he announced Pansza's removal from the ministry, that he had asked Father James Hart, chancellor for the diocese, and Father Michael Olson, the vicar general who also oversees the Conduct Review Board, to review the personnel files of all priests.
Olson himself will come to Wichita Falls this weekend to say Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"First," he said, "we're going to do everything we can to cover them sacramentally." That includes Sunday Masses and opportunities for confession. Regular parish outreach will continue.
"We would try to get a new pastor installed as soon as we can," Olson said. When asked about the possibility of consolidating that parish with another in Wichita Falls, he said that wasn't in the plans.
"The Priest Personnel Board will meet next week," he said, to address the issue of bringing a priest to the parish.
Martinez hoped Olson's visit would answer some questions and encourage the parishioners to keep going, despite losing a priest who found his way quickly into their hearts.
"We all respected him," she said. "From the beginning he told us his background." She said the parishioners learned about the earlier life Pansza had built for himself - he worked for 22 years for the Department of Defense - and he gave up a lot to become a priest, she said.
Martinez said he rallied people together to where it "seemed like we were heading the right way," especially in reaching toward the goal of a new church building.
"They had the chance of scrutinizing his background before they even started him in the seminary," she said. "That's what hurt people."
She said Pansza had been fully supportive of programs in the Church aimed at keeping children safe. People who work with children must go through training.
"The beauty of it is he would sit down every Sunday at the steps of the altar, and the children would bring their collections to him," Martinez said. "He would say, 'Thank you,' to every one of those children."
The news release from the diocese reported that no accusations of abuse have surfaced during Pansza's priesthood.
An article published Friday in The Dallas Morning News reported that in 2004, a judge in Tarrant County ordered the Diocese of Fort Worth to review clergy files and give lawyer Tahira Khan Merritt records related to allegations of abuse. Merritt had filed a suit alleging that the diocese had hidden those issues. The diocese also had to provide files related to seven other priests. The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2005 fought to have those records, which were sealed, made public. This fall, the newspapers obtained those documents, which the article described as showing "how church officials helped predators stay in ministry for two decades while hiding information from police and the public."
Pansza's information was not included in that group of files.
Hensley said Hart and Olson would go through all priest files.
He said the diocese reported the information to the Fort Worth Police Department, Child Protective Services, and to the county where the incident was reported to have happened. The diocese was withholding that information to protect the identity of the victim, he said.
Martinez said every church, every denomination, has to think about this type of issue.
"We don't want anything to happen to our children," she said.
She hoped for the best for Pansza, saying this was a sad time for him. She urged people "just to pray for him, just to pray for him."
Crime reporter Jessica Langdon can be reached at (940) 763-7530 or by e-mail at langdonj(at)TimesRecordNews.com.
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