Priest's Suicide Linked to Abuse Scandal

By Matt C. Abbott
Renew America
August 2, 2007

Pennsylvania — The following is an edited version of a paper reportedly sent to certain priests in the Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., Catholic diocese regarding Father William Rosensteel, who committed suicide in late June 2007 after an allegation of sexual misconduct became public. The paper, provided to me by a source in the diocese, was written by a supporter of Father Rosensteel.

Chronicle of Father William Rosensteel's Last Months

March, 2007- June 24, 2007

'In early March 2007, Father Rosensteel was summoned to the bishop's office where he met with the bishop and the vicar general. He was not accompanied by a canonist or anyone else. He was told that a parishioner from a parish in which he served from 1971 to 1972 had contacted attorney Serbin and claimed Father Rosensteel had had inappropriate contact with him in that period.

'Father Rosensteel declined to read whatever documents were offered to him, but he did discuss the allegation to some extent, without the benefit of canonical counsel. He was asked if he had any place to live if he were to be removed from his parish. He said, 'No.' He was told that he could live at Dmitri Manor. The vicar general also told him he might consider preparing himself for a life of prayer and penance. (Father Rosensteel had one or two anonymous claims made against him prior to the latest one, but nothing was done since he did not know the name of the accuser and, thus, could not respond.)

'Father Rosensteel asked if he should seek canonical or civil legal counsel. The vicar general gave him the name and phone number of a canonist in Erie. He was told he should not seek civil legal counsel, nor was he to wear clerical attire outside the parish.

'The following week, approximately March 8, 2007, Father Rosensteel was summoned to the vicar general's office, this time accompanied by a priest-friend, and was told he should vacate Holy Rosary Parish before the weekend. He was not to celebrate Mass publicly or function in any way as a priest. He was told the vicar general would compose a letter that the bishop would send to Rome for his case. The vicar general told him that, depending upon Rome's response, he might be able to function in a limited capacity in the future.

'The vicar general also told Father Rosensteel that letters might be sent to parishes where he had served and a statement might be published in The Catholic Register. He was shown the quarters at Dmitri Manor, into which he moved on March 10. He was not informed of when any further action would be taken against him or what the contents of the letter to be sent to Rome would contain.

'The bishop called Father Rosensteel once in the course of four months. Father Rosensteel asked him what the next move would be. The bishop replied that the diocesan review board could not meet before the end of April due to Holy Week observances and other commitments. The only other contact Father Rosensteel had with the vicar general was in May, when he appeared at Father Rosensteel's door at Dmitri Manor, ordering him to write a letter of resignation from the pastorate of Holy Rosary Parish, since it would 'come into play in the June assignments.' Father Rosensteel complied with the demand — again without counsel. Father Rosensteel moved into an apartment in Hollidaysburg on June 1.

'On June 19, the current pastors of the parishes in which Father Rosensteel had served over the past 38 years received letters from the bishop ordering them to read an enclosed letter at all Masses the following weekend (June 23/24) regarding the allegation of inappropriate behavior by Father Rosensteel. At least some of the pastors were reluctant to read the letter. Father Rosensteel learned on Tuesday, June 19, that these letters were to be read.

'(As an aside, the letter ordered to be read at these parishes asserted that Fr. Rosensteel took a leave of absence to attend to health problems. Although he had health problems and spoke of early retirement in recent years, the only reason he left Holy Rosary when he did was because he was ordered to do so. It should be noted that the letter also states that 'the case has been referred to the civil authorities and, following their response, it will be sent to the Holy See's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for final determination.')

'Due to concerns not only about the canonical propriety of having such letters read publicly at Sunday Masses, but also about the morality of doing so, on June 20 a retired Jesuit professor in Rome was contacted.

'In a subsequent communication, the Jesuit professor said the canon lawyer for the CDF stated if the accusation against the priest was not proven and publicly known, 'the procedure you described to me in your letter, although he [the CDF canonist] is aware that in the U.S. it is sometimes applied, 'is wrong and immoral."

'On Friday morning, June 22, one of the pastors ordered to read to parishioners the letter concerning Father Rosensteel spoke to the canonist at the CDF. The canonist told the pastor that he should not read the letter and that he (the canonist) would be glad to explain to the bishop why it would be wrong to do so.

'The pastor apparently decided not to read the letter at Masses that Sunday, and some priests who had been very concerned about the matter were going to attempt to convey the canonist's advice to the other pastors involved. But the letter ended up being printed in the diocesan newspaper, which was already in the mail. Many priests were outraged.

'Father Rosensteel had no canonist to advise or represent him. He was given the name of a canonist in a neighboring diocese when he first met with the bishop and vicar general. When Father Rosensteel called this canonist, he was told that he (the canonist) could not represent him because of his work with officials in the diocese. The canonist said that when any canonical action was taken, he would recommend another canonist to help. More than a month after Father Rosensteel was removed from his parish, he again called the canonist, who him that he would be in contact with Father Rosensteel within a week. The canonist never contacted him.

'Father Rosensteel, on June 24, after a trip of two days transporting a missionary from India to the missionary's next assignment in Buffalo, New York, returned to his apartment and saw the bishop's statement in the diocesan newspaper. Subsequently, Father Rosensteel drove to a bridge and jumped off.

'This information was also forwarded to Rome....

'If this tragedy is to be redeemed in some way, it will only be if we learn from it. Here is what I believe we should learn:

'People can be pushed only so far. We must be careful in the way we treat others, whether they be clergy or laity. God only knows how close to 'the edge' another person is. We all need to be gentle with others.

'We need to remember how important a person's good name is. To knowingly harm a person's reputation without just cause and clear evidence is a serious violation of the Eighth Commandment. The consequences of such violations are far-reaching and irreversible.

'The Church must continue to do all in her power to protect children from abuse, especially by members of the clergy. But the Church must also develop a system that protects priests from potentially harming themselves. Even a priest who is known to be guilty of the crime of child abuse should not be required to forfeit his life to satisfy attorneys, insurance companies, the media and plaintiffs. How much more is this true of a priest whose 'case' has not yet been decided?'

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic columnist with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Management from Triton College in River Grove, Ill. He is the former director of public affairs for the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League and the former executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee. He was a contributor to The Wanderer Catholic newspaper and had numerous letters to the editor published in major newspapers, including the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times. He can be reached at


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