|Abuse Story Takes Turn
Vicar General: Father Pansza's Recent Account 'Ridiculous'
By Ann Work and Trish Choate
Times Record News [Wichita Falls TX]
February 2, 2007
The sexual abuse allegation that prompted Fort Worth Catholic Diocese Bishop Kevin Vann to oust Rev. Gilbert Pansza from a Wichita Falls parish is more serious than previously reported, according to Father Michael Olson, the vicar general who also oversees the Diocese's Conduct Review Board.
Pansza's offense was not a one-time incident but a recurring relationship that continued in San Antonio for several years in the early 1970s when Pansza was in his 20s, Olson told the Times Record News in an interview Thursday.
That account conflicts with a Dec. 14 press release from Vann that accompanied a news conference on Pansza's removal from the church.
Confusion about the nature of the sexual relationship is rooted in the words "the incident" that was used once by Vann in the written statement.
The new revelation of repeated infractions also conflicts with Pansza's own account, which several parishioners say he has related to them.
Parishioners said Pansza told them he committed a one-time offense of sexual abuse when he was 14.
Joe Nieto, a friend and member of Pansza's former parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, said Pansza told him in a telephone conversation as recently as Tuesday that "what happened" was "when I was 14 years old."
Nieto said he could not confirm that the action was a one-time offense or something that reoccurred.
One source who wished to remain unnamed said that Pansza told him in a recent telephone conversation that "it was a one-time thing" and it happened "when I was 14."
Olson said he had heard that "rumors were going around that this happened when he was 14." Such an account would mean that Pansza has changed his story from when he first told it to church leaders in 1998 prior to becoming a priest, Olson said.
"When he admitted to the action (to Bishop Joseph Delaney, now deceased) back in 1998, he said that he was in his 20s when it occurred. He's changing his story," Olson said.
"The facts we have are that he stated before that he was in his 20s when it started. Yes, it was more than once. It went on for several years. It was with a minor," Olson said.
The Dec. 14 press release statement by Vann said, in part, "In continuing to review the files of the diocese, we discovered an admission from Father Pansza of sexual abuse of a minor that occurred in the early 1970s. The behavior to which Fr. Pansza admitted, as I said, occurred in the early 1970s before he was even a seminarian. We have turned the information about the incident over to the appropriate legal authorities."
The news release led church members to believe Pansza's infraction was a one-time occurrence.
Olson denied Thursday ever calling the issue "an incident." He said he chose his words carefully when he visited the parish in December and explained why Father Gil would be removed from the Wichita Falls ministry.
"I said it happened a long time ago. And I said it was sexual misconduct with a minor in the 1970s. I didn't say 'an incident,' " Olson said Thursday.
"There was one person," he said, referring to the victim. "It was not a one-time incident."
Any claim that the sexual abuse occurred when Pansza was 14 is "ridiculous," Olson said.
Anyone who believes that the sexual abuse was a one-time offense committed when Pansza was 14 "is hearing what he wants to hear," Olson said.
Olson said he and another church leader have tried to contact the victim several times, but he has not returned their phone calls, Olson said.
The Times Record News spoke briefly Thursday with Father Pansza, who returned a call placed to his treatment facility, Saint Luke Institute of Silver Spring, Md.
"I feel I want to tell my story, but I'm not sure how to do that. That's from the heart," he said. "I'm OK. I'm healing, and I'm better than I was Dec. 14."
Pansza said he is seeking legal counsel, an action that Olson confirmed and said is within the priest's rights. "The Bishop gave him the name of a canon lawyer," Olson said.
The 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was created by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, required Vann to swiftly remove Pansza from the parish leadership when he recently discovered the severity of Pansza's offense, Olson said.
Vann stunned parishioners Dec. 14 when he announced Pansza's removal from the ministry and took him that same day to what diocese leaders called "a safe place."
Parishioners said that Pansza has told them he was whisked away that same day and flown without all of his important belongings to a treatment facility in Silver Spring, Md. He also told them that he was stripped of his wallet and cell phone and not allowed to contact friends and family during the holidays.
Olson and Ft. Worth ministry leaders are reviewing the personnel files of all priests, Olson said.
Olson said that Article 5 of the Charter requires church leaders to remove an offending priest or deacon "for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor - whenever it occurred," according to the document.
That includes any offense committed even before the priesthood, Olson clarified.
The Charter requires that an offending priest be "dismissed from the clerical state" and "offered therapeutic professional assistance" for prevention, his healing and well-being.
That is why Pansza was taken to the Silver Spring facility, he said.
"We cannot under the terms of the Charter return him to ministry," Olson said.
A retirement package has not yet been offered to Pansza, but it is in the works, he said. "We're not going to abandon him emotionally or physically. He's 56. I think certainly we'd offer him that."
The offer would also include an opportunity for job retraining, he said.
He admitted that the abrupt removal from his position at the church is "a terrible injustice" but that the perpetrator is not Vann.
"If anybody destroyed him, it was (Bishop) Delaney. Why was (Pansza) ever ordained? In 2001? With the knowledge of this? The church was in the throes of all sorts of these problems," Olson said.
According to church records, Delaney decided that enough time had passed that Pansza was not a risk to children.
But with current thinking on the subject, Vann could do nothing less than remove Pansza, Olson said. "You have a priest who has admitted to an act of sexual misconduct with a minor, and you're going to leave him in a position where he has ready access to children? It seems to me that these same folks crying out about this would vilify us if we acted otherwise."
Our Lady of Guadalupe church member Julia Broyles said she wrote an angry letter to Vann when Father Gil was dismissed, telling him that she didn't approve of what he did and asking for his reasoning.
The letter was answered by Father James Hart, chancellor and moderator of the Curia, she said.
Hart assured her that Vann was as heartbroken as she and called the situation an "injustice" but that Vann had only recently learned the facts of Pansza's offending behavior.
"Because of their criminal nature, Bishop Delaney should never have ordained Father Pansza," Hart wrote. "In fact, he had a moral obligation not to do so. In ordaining Father Pansza, Bishop Delaney did him a great injustice."
None of that mattered to Broyles, she said. "That was way back when he was a young man," she said. "We see where Jesus forgave the adulterous woman. Why can't we forgive? The man's trying to be good."
She would not be inclined to hold her leader to a higher standard than anyone else, she said. "Jesus talked to the woman caught in adultery and told her to go and sin no more, your sins are forgiven. I think we should not even think about what was in his past. It's none of our business."
Education reporter Ann Work can be reached at (940)763-7538 or by e-mail at worka@TimesRecordNews.com
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