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  Town Bewildered by Priest's Removal

By Frank Burgos
Chicago Sun-Times
September 12, 1993

When the Rev. William Joffe was assigned to St. Patrick's Church here last winter it was cause for celebration - even if Joffe was an ex-con who had bilked a McHenry County parish out of more than $ 265,000.

The old priest at St. Patrick's had retired months earlier, leaving this small, largely Roman Catholic community 100 miles west of Chicago without someone to tend the flock at the town's only Catholic house of worship.

"Priests are hard to come by," said Leroy Stambaugh, a town alderman, explaining the willingness of fellow parishioners to embrace a somewhat sullied man of the cloth.

Amboy's happiness, however, was short-lived. Last month, Joffe was abruptly removed from his new post by the Diocese of Rockford, whose officials offered no explanation. Neither did Joffe, who has left town and whose whereabouts are unknown.

All that's left is a big mystery, rumors and a small town struggling to keep the faith without a permanent spiritual leader.

The 60-year-old Joffe was in no way an average cleric.

Last year, he confessed to embezzling $ 265,882 from St. Joseph Church of Harvard where he had been posted and pleaded guilty to federal felony bank fraud charges. Prosecutors said Joffe diverted church funds in a Wisconsin bank to a personal account.

Unlike clergy in religious orders, Joffe, a diocesan priest, took no vow of poverty and had, at one time, amassed a personal fortune of $ 2.7 million that included a horse farm and interests in a Wisconsin resort.

When some of the investments soured, investigators said, Joffe filed for bankruptcy and used part of the parish money to prop up his failing businesses.

"He paid the mortgage on his farm with this embezzled money," said Susan Knepel, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Wisconsin who prosecuted Joffe.

After serving nearly a year at a federal prison camp in Leavenworth, Kan., Joffe was reassigned by his diocese late last winter to St. Patrick Church in Amboy.

Church doctrine states that priests who have committed crimes can remain in the clergy if they confess and ask for forgiveness. But as part of his penance, Joffe's superiors in the church prohibited him from having anything to do with finances at St. Patrick's. And they ordered him to tell his new parishioners what he had done. He did.

"I think everybody took it very well," said Beverly Halsey, who credits Joffe with her return to the Catholic faith after staying away from the church for nine years. "People just looked at him as a priest. God's forgiven him."

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has had a difficult time recruiting and keeping priests. In a one-parish town like Amboy, the loss of the lone clergyman can be particularly traumatic.

Indeed, Amboy residents appear more concerned about their lack of a priest than the current vacancy in the police chief's office.

During his few months in Amboy, Joffe won the praise of many of St. Patrick's longtime members.

"I thought he was a wonderful priest, as far as I'm concerned," said Bill McCoy.

"Everybody seemed to like him," said another parishioner, Barbara Harrison. "He had wonderful homilies."

"I think the man was really trying to turn his life around," said Stambaugh.

But in late July, Joffe shocked St. Patrick's by announcing that he had been relieved of his duties, though he provided no details.

The Rev. Charles McNamee, the chancellor of the Rockford diocese, said Joffe "had been reassigned. That's all I know." His last day at St. Patrick's was Aug. 4, McNamee said.

That week, church members threw Joffe a big send-off dinner. About 150 people showed up, and "everybody brought a dish to pass," Harrison said.

All that is left of Joffe's brief tenure at St. Patrick are questions about his forced departure. "I think at the present time it's all rumor and innuendo," said Amboy Mayor Hank Gerdes.

"We've been left in the dark," said Halsey. "No one has talked to us. We should have had a voice in the decision to take him away."

Joffe's departure has "really disrupted everything," Harrison said, including religious classes for children. "We don't have a leader to instruct the groups on where he wants us to go."

Clergy from area churches have been shuttling to Amboy to offer mass on weekends. Still, there are many in town who want Joffe back, whatever the reason behind his ouster. A letter campaign to the diocese showed little result.

"At the very least, we want an explanation," Halsey said. "This priest brought people back into religion."

 
 

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