|Members Concerned about Priest
By Ann Work
Times Record News [Texas]
February 1, 2007
Some church members at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church are concerned about the welfare and whereabouts of Rev. Gilbert Pansza - "Father Gil" - after several of them learned that he was "essentially kidnapped" from his home in mid-December and committed to a psychiatric facility by Fort Worth church leaders.
Pansza had been abruptly removed Dec. 14 from his duties at the church, less than four months after he had been installed at the parish by Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth.
At the time, a news release explained that Vann was acting to remove Pansza in response to discovery of a file that included an incident involving Pansza's sexual abuse of a minor in the 1970s, before Pansza entered seminary,.
Parishioners were told then by diocese leaders that Pansza had been taken "to a safe place."
Jeff Hensley, communications director of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, promised to try to provide the Times Record News with an update Wednesday on Pansza, but did not.
Some parishioners have since learned from Pansza himself that the bishop and two priests forcefully took him from his residence on the same morning that he was relieved of his church duties, flew him to Maryland and admitted him to Saint Luke Institute of Silver Spring, Md., a psychiatric facility serving people in church ministry.
A call to the facility Wednesday by the Times Record News was connected by a receptionist to a voice mail message by Pansza in English, then in Spanish, saying that he could no longer answer the phone "in person now."
Wichita Falls resident Joe Nieto was surprised but relieved Saturday to receive an e-mail from Pansza, whom he considers a close friend as well as his former priest. Until the e-mail, he had been trying unsuccessfully to contact Pansza.
Then, Tuesday night, Pansza called him. The priest explained the shock of being practically abducted from his home, taken away without being allowed to pack his medication for heart and diabetic conditions, and stripped of his phone and wallet without explanation, Nieto said.
Nieto said in the e-mail, Pansza said it was the first opportunity he had to communicate with the "outside world" since Dec. 14.
Another source who has been in contact with Father Pansza on an ongoing basis confirmed the account and said that Pansza has not been told when he will be released.
It is not clear whether Pansza can leave the facility at will.
Priests told Nieto that Pansza was not being held against his will, but it wasn't until Pansza dialed his sister's phone number by memory that he was first able to contact friends and family.
"According to Father Gil, I don't think that's possible," that he's not being held against his will, Nieto said.
Church officials assured parishioners that they could write to Pansza, channeling the letters through the Fort Worth diocese.
Pansza said Tuesday that he had received no letters, according to Nieto.
Pansza has told parishioners that Vann visited him last week and told him he has been relieved of all duties at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. He will not be allowed to celebrate any masses or wear priestly clothing, Nieto said.
Pansza told one source that he did not belong at the Maryland facility.
A bilingual priest, Pansza had quickly earned devotion and a loyal church following in the four months he had served at the Wichita Falls church since replacing Father Hector Medina, who was transferred to a Dallas-Fort Worth church.
Previously, Pansza served as associate pastor at St. John the Apostle Church in Fort Worth, as pastor of St. John the Baptizer in Bridgeport, Assumption of the Blessed Mary in Decatur and St. Mary in Jacksboro.
The Diocese of Fort Worth reported at the time it removed Pansza from active ministry that it had not received any accusations against him involving abuse of children since he was ordained as a priest May 27, 2000.
It cited its responsibility to follow the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, crafted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Local parishioners who have studied the document say it applies to priests who commit offenses as priests, not ones like Pansza who admitted to one incident committed well before even applying for the priesthood.
"It has nothing to do with what you do before you became a priest. Also, it says that you're supposed to have an advocate. He has no advocate. It's just awful," said one source.
Vann told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram in an article posted Dec. 14 that his predecessor, the late Bishop Joseph Delaney, knew about the incident but allowed Pansza to be ordained because of the length of time that had passed.
Meanwhile, several parishioners have written Vann asking for an audience to seek the release of Pansza and his return to priestly duties and to the parish as its pastor.
They report that masses that were once full have dwindled by half. "Also the money situation is bad," said one who requested anonymity. "We could support ourselves and now we're not able to."
Another said Pansza's removal halted all fundraising for a new church building. Currently, $1.2 million sits in the building fund. "The goal was at least $2 million to start with," said Linda Chavez, a religious education instructor and youth volunteer at the church. "Hopefully we'll have some direction soon, but there are no guarantees."
A Fort Worth priest now makes weekend trips to Wichita Falls for Saturday and Sunday masses, but one church member worries that's not enough. "If (my husband) and I had a heart attack tonight, we don't have a priest. That's important to a Catholic."
"I think the church right now is doing this very brutally," said one member of another Catholic church who often visits Our Lady of Guadalupe. "They're not looking at the actual facts. Quite frankly, to have done this to him in a Mexican-American parish is awful. The diocese did it to the parish, in my opinion. I just wonder if they would have been quite so swift to do it in an Anglo parish. They should have looked at it a lot more carefully."
Church member Linda Chavez said the actions of church leaders - acting before they had a replacement and with such secrecy - have weakened her trust in them, but not weakened her faith. "It wasn't Jesus that failed us," she said. "It was the humans involved that failed us."
Education reporter Ann Work can be reached at (940)763-7538 or by e-mail at worka@TimesRecordNews.com.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.