Plenty of Support for Accused Local Priest
By Rosa Salter Rodriguez
March 15, 2012
Nearly every day, they’ve been writing – sometimes a few words, sometimes a sentence or two, often whole paragraphs packed with emotion.
“Words can’t express the sorrow I have for (you), Father Thom,” one wrote. “I can’t imagine your pain, and I look forward to the day that we can welcome you back home with open arms at St. Joseph’s.”
“Still thinking of you and praying you remain strong and sustained … I miss you and I know that God the Father has you in His mighty hand,” another penned.
Those who know the Rev. Thomas C. Lombardi have been voicing their support online for the Fort Wayne-South Bend Roman Catholic Diocese priest accused of sexual misconduct with a teenage boy more than 10 years ago.
Lombardi, 62, was removed from ministry at St. Joseph Catholic Church-Hessen Cassel in December by the Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the diocese.
But many of those who have posted at www.supportfatherthom.com say the allegation doesn’t mesh with the priest they know. In interviews, several said they feel they’ve been left in the dark by church officials.
“We haven’t heard or learned much at all since (the suspension) happened,” said Mike Blankman, a parishioner at St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel, where parishioners say they’ve also written letters to the bishop supporting Lombardi.
“I just wish they’d move things along, if anything is going on,” Blankman said. “We don’t know what they’re working on at the moment or what phase it’s in. It’s like there’s a deadening silence.”
The silence stems from several issues, officials say, including the absence of information for police to investigate and the diocese’s inability to proceed without direction from the church hierarchy.
According to an account the diocese provided local law enforcement, a man who asked to remain anonymous told church officials late last year that as a teen he was working out on the property of St. Louis Catholic Church-Besancon outside New Haven and asked Lombardi whether lifting weights would affect his muscles.
The priest then allegedly asked the youth to take off his shirt and pants, and he complied. There was no physical contact and no further incidents, according to the report. Lombardi served at the church from 1986 until July 1997.
Cpl. Jeremy Tinkel, public information officer for the Allen County Sheriff’s Department, said it is not investigating the report because no one has come forward with first-hand information about a crime. There have been no additional reports, he said.
The alleged victim is now 31 or 32 years old, according to the Support Father Thom website.
Rhoades, who left last week to attend this week’s National Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Washington, referred questions about the case to the Rev. Mark Gurtner, of Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church in Fort Wayne, who is a canon lawyer or specialist in church law.
Gurtner said that while the church cannot be forthcoming on many details, he could say the case has been sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for additional guidance, as is now required under a new worldwide Roman Catholic policy.
The policy, which has not yet been formally incorporated into the diocese’s published policy, requires that bishops seek the guidance of Rome on how to handle sexual abuse allegations found “plausible” at the preliminary stage, he said. That stage, although it does not include a determination of guilt or innocence, was complete at the time of Lombardi’s removal, Gurtner said.
The new policy, which also covers deacons, says cases also are forwarded if the accused admits to an allegation at the preliminary stage. The Vatican then gives the bishop three options, Gurtner said.
The first and most likely option would be to refer the case back to the bishop, who would gather more formal evidence, seek the advice of others and make the determination of guilt or innocence. A second option takes the decision out of the bishop’s hands and places it with a five-person panel of canon lawyers or judges. The third option, rarely used, would place the decision with the pope.
“We are waiting at this point. We have no idea when they would get back to us. I would judge it wouldn’t be longer than six months,” Gurtner said.
Gurtner said that to his knowledge no further allegations have been made and nothing was found in the priest’s background. He said the files of all priests were examined during the transition between Rhoades and the diocese’s retired bishop, the Rev. John M. D’Arcy. If another allegation is made, “there would be a police report,” Gurtner said.
Lombardi also served at St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntington and briefly in Mishawaka.
Gurtner said that although no physical contact was reported, Lombardi is facing investigation based on the diocese’s policy that covers “inappropriate sexual behavior.”
“Sexual behavior doesn’t have to include touching; it doesn’t have to include words. It could be anything that is construed as sexual exploitation,” Gurtner said. Whether the policy has been violated “is based not just on the feelings of the person (accusing)” but also on “intent by the priest to sexually exploit the minor. You have to determine intent.”
In an interview, online supporter James A. Lomont, 75, of New Haven said he believes it was unlikely Lombardi intentionally abused anyone.
Lomont said he was a cemetery caretaker and treasurer at St. Louis-Besancon while Lombardi was there and thinks the alleged incident seemed “simply like guys (being guys), working out in an athletic room.”
Supporters have said Lombardi, who had lost weight and tried to stay in good health, was known for working out with weights himself.
“I didn’t really think that was a very adequate reason to (accuse) this man from what they have said (happened),” Lomont said. “If he had touched someone or done some immoral act – that would be a different thing.”
Another online supporter, Jyl Mattes of Garrett, where Lombardi served at St. Joseph Catholic Church, recalled the priest insisted that anyone who worked with children at St. Joseph undergo sexual abuse training.
“I don’t know if it’s true or false, and I’m not the judge of that, but I would be very surprised if there had been any validity to (the allegation). If there is, I’m surprised that no one from Huntington (Catholic) High School has come forward.”
Lombardi was on the school’s faculty and was principal from about 1977 until shortly before the school was closed in 1985 because of for declining enrollment.
Mattes said Lombardi left a legacy in Garrett of a soup kitchen and a used-clothing ministry that are “still going strong” and presided over the retirement of the church’s building debt.
“I found him to be a very approachable priest and a very sincere priest,” she said.
Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says it’s not uncommon for accused priests to have support, saying it’s occurred in high-profile cases in which priests later were found guilty.
“You’ve got to realize that these predators are not black and white,” she says. “Often they’re charming, they’re charismatic and they do many good things.”
Public support, Dorris says, can cut two ways, saying it might cheer someone falsely accused but also “intimidate” victims and witnesses from coming forward.
If an accused priest has a lot of support, “You can think (the abuse) must be your fault, or you must be wrong, or it didn’t happen,” she said, noting that supporters could stay in touch in private correspondence.
Gurtner said online messages and letters to the bishop could become evidence on behalf of Lombardi’s character at upcoming church proceedings.
He said he could not reveal the priest’s whereabouts, but the diocese would forward any private letters to him; the website lists a post-office box as his address.
Pending resolution of the case, Lombardi is not allowed to offer Mass or the sacraments in public and is not allowed to have contact with children, Gurtner said. If found guilty, he would be defrocked.
If found not guilty, Gurtner said, the church would “do everything possible as far as public statements and so on” to clear Lombardi’s name, “without compromising the reputation of the accuser.”
A resolution cannot come too soon for supporters.
“We want this to be over,” said online supporter Nancy McNamara of Huntington, whose four children were students at Huntington Catholic while Lombardi was there.
“We know the church and the bishop have to go slowly. … But there needs to be some progress made.”