|Pastor on Leave during Investigation
By Tracy Rusch
May 10, 2011
Fr. Michael E. Nowak, pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux Parish, Kenosha, was placed on administrative leave and restricted from ministry last week because of a report that alleges he had an inappropriate telephone conversation with a minor female that included sexually explicit language, according to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki’s May 7 letter to parishioners.
Sergeant James Heiring, public information officer for the Kenosha Police Department, told your Catholic Herald Tuesday that a second female minor under age 16 filed a complaint May 2, the day after the first report was filed.
As of press time Tuesday, the Catholic Herald could not determine if the archdiocese had been informed of the second report.
“Detective (Felicia) Labatore sent two separate counts of unlawful use of a telephone over to the district attorney’s office for charges,” Heiring said of the detective assigned to the case in which “both calls were alleged to have come from Fr. Nowak.” The outcome of the misdemeanor charges will depend upon what happens when they go through the trial system and a judge determines the penalty, he said.
Fr. Pat Heppe, archdiocesan vicar for clergy and lay ecclesial ministry, met with the parish trustees, council leadership and parish staff May 6 to explain the situation before a trustee read the letter, referring to a report of an alleged inappropriate phone call, at the weekend Masses.
“There was a Mass that had first Communion kids and we didn’t want to disturb any of those family activities, and so there was an announcement made that there was a special letter incorporated in the bulletin for parents,” he said.
The archbishop’s letter stated that no physical contact was reported. It also said that police initiated an investigation and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s victim assistance coordinator was contacted.
“I felt it was important for you to hear from me about this incident,” the archbishop wrote about Fr. Nowak, who has served the parish since February 2003. “I promise to update you fully as additional information becomes available.”
Archbishop Listecki explained in the letter that he assigned Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament Fr. Dominic Thomas, pastor of St. James the Apostle Parish in Kenosha, as temporary administrator of St. Therese, responsible for parish operations, until further notice.
Heiring, public information officer for the Kenosha Police Department, told your Catholic Herald Monday that the report of the first alleged inappropriate phone call was filed in person May 1.
“The parents brought the victim down to the police department to make a report,” he said. The report was then forwarded to the detective bureau to be assigned to one of the sensitive crime detectives.
Heiring said that the length of the investigation depends on the number of charges and alleged victims.
“Sometimes, it can be relatively short. Unfortunately, in this case, we don’t know if there (are) more victims out there,” he said. “A lot of times, when cases like this are taken by a detective and then they get into the paper, we find out there’s more victims than originally reported, so sometimes they can be relatively short investigations, but if there turns out to be more victims, obviously, it will be a longer investigation.”
Heiring said that if people feel they have been victimized, they are encouraged to call Labatore, the detective assigned to the case.
Julie Wolf, communications director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said the archdiocese has followed all of the policies and procedures that are in place.
“I think the important thing is to remember that this is currently an allegation and the outcome, whatever that may be, will be dependent on the results of the investigation,” Wolf said.
At the conclusion of the police investigation, the archdiocese will pursue an investigation with its independent investigator, she said.
“And then a recommendation or report will be issued to the Diocesan Review Board, and the Diocesan Review Board will issue a recommendation to the archbishop,” she explained.
Jerry Topczewski, Archbishop Listecki’s chief of staff, said that the Diocesan Review Board will review the police report, and may ask for more information that would come from a subsequent independent investigation.
Topczewski said the archdiocese will utilize the review board in the same way for the alleged inappropriate phone call as it would for any other alleged abuse.
“Does it fall under the Charter? Regardless of whether it does or doesn’t, we would still utilize the Diocesan Review Board…” he said.
Archbishop Listecki encouraged the St. Therese parishioners to pray as the investigation continues.
“Please pray for all involved and be assured of my own prayers for you and the St. Therese faith community,” he wrote.
Fr. Heppe said the parish council held a meeting Monday that was open to the public where a number of people gathered to talk about their concerns and feelings.
As vicar for clergy, he will keep in contact with Fr. Nowak.
“Initial psychological counseling is available and also spiritual direction – those are the things that begin first,” he said, admitting it’s a difficult time for all involved.
He also said that the parish has good leadership and that the parish trustees are doing a good job.
“Between the priests that are in Kenosha and the leadership of Fr. Dominic, the parish will continue to run as usual and the pastoral needs of the parishioners will be taken care of,” he said.
Fr. Nowak was ordained to the priesthood May 17, 1997, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, and was assigned as associate pastor of Christ King Parish in Wauwatosa that June.
He earned a Bachelor of Science at UW-Parkside, Kenosha; an associate’s degree in nursing and licensure as a registered nurse at Gateway Technical College, Racine campus; and his master’s of divinity from Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis. Fr. Nowak completed pastoral training at St. Mary Parish, Kenosha; clinical pastoral training at St. Joseph Hospital, Milwaukee; societal ministry at Sojourner Truth House (now the Sojourner Family Peace Center), Milwaukee; and provided diaconal service at Saint Francis Seminary and St. Joseph, Racine.
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