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  Priests' Work Clouded by Criminal Brethren
Self-Conscious Clergy Try to Stay Focused on Doing God's Work

By Keith Uhlig
Wausau Daily Herald
March 17, 2002

The Rev. Keith Apfelbeck recalls late nights in 1991, when he sat in an old-growth forest in Oregon studying the habits of the nocturnal northern flying squirrel.

His mind turned to his future. Apfelbeck, then a 24-year-old federal research assistant, sought advice from the highest authority he knew.

"I didn't hear any voices. There was no skywriting. I didn't receive a letter," he said. "But for the first time in my life, I prayed about what God wanted me to do."

He spent three years thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He then enrolled in the seminary and was ordained a priest in the the Diocese of La Crosse in June 1999. He knows he made the right choice, but widespread publicity about pedophile priests has put his profession - his life - under scrutiny as never before. Public perceptions have forced priests to be intently aware of their behavior, down to the smallest gestures.

Indeed, the shock waves of sexual abuse cases from Boston to Wausau have rocked the Catholic Church to its very foundation. The crimes those priests perpetrated against young victims are reprehensible. But the offenders also have made victims of honorable, upright priests and all who put their faith in the church's hands.

"We have really intimate knowledge of people's lives, and to abuse that position is wrong, morally and civilly," said Apfelbeck, parochial administrator at St. Therese Church in Rothschild and St. Agnes Church in Callon, and chaplain to the Catholic Hmong Community in the diocese "I'm saddened when I find out about these things ... and to some degree, I'm angered by it as well."

Priests say they must live with the actions of their fallen brethren, and they know the eyes of their congregations, communities and the world are on them.

"It almost inevitably casts a shadow on the rest of us," said the Rev. Lawrence Dunklee, 49, a priest at St. Charles Parish in Genoa. In his capacity as vicar of the La Crosse Diocese, Dunklee ministers to other priests.

The shadow to which Dunklee refers puts new limits on Catholic clergy everywhere, said James F. Cobble Jr., author of "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church" and executive director of Christian Ministry Resource, a publishing and continuing-education company in Mathews, N.C.In the past, priests were viewed as religious leaders. Today, priests are viewed with question marks in everyone's mind," Cobble said. "I think (priests) wrestle very much with that, the stigma."

High-profile crimes A priest's job is to get close to people. But with headlines like "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church," which blared off the cover of the March 4 issue of Newsweek, the job has become a delicate balancing act.

The headlines have been prompted by high-profile cases such as that of John Geoghan, the defrocked priest from the Archdiocese of Boston who is serving a 9- to 10-year prison sentence for groping a 10-year-old boy. Geoghan has been accused by 130 people of molesting them during his decades as a priest, beginning in the 1960s.

In response to the controversy, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law announced a "zero tolerance" policy, has given prosecutors the names of 80 priests accused of abuse over five decades and has suspended 10 active priests.

North central Wisconsin hasn't been immune to the problem. On Feb. 25, the Rev. Timothy E. Svea pleaded guilty in Marathon County Circuit Court to second-degree sexual assault of a child under age 16 and five counts of exposing himself to a child.

The abuse began in 1998 while Svea headed a mission group in St. Mary's Ridge in Monroe County, and continued when he and volunteers moved the group to St. Mary Catholic Church in Wausau in April 1999. He is serving a sentence of a year and a half in the Marathon County Jail. Svea resigned from his position as a priest in the nondiocesan Institute of Christ the King, which offers Latin Masses at St. Mary in Wausau.

Even though attention is focused now on Catholic priests, Cobble said, sexual abuse is by no means only a Catholic problem. Protestant churches face as many abuse cases, he said, and many times in those churches the perpetrators are volunteers who work with children.

Still, the high profile of crimes by Catholic clergy, priests say, has made them more self-conscious than ever.

Apfelbeck said that's part of the job.

"People expect more from priests. We are held to a higher moral standard," he said. "We come in contact with so many people's lives. On any given week, there are thousands of people that I directly or indirectly come in contact with, and my desire is they live good and holy lives, and so they have the same expectations of me."

Reaching 'critical mass' Cases of sexual abuse by priests quickly ignite an inferno for several reasons, priests and other experts say.

Apfelbeck believes that the crime is especially troubling to people because it represents the ultimate breach of trust. Dunklee, the diocesan vicar, said it could cause some people to question their most sacred beliefs.

The subject is titillating because of priests' vow of celibacy, even though "there's no evidence that celibacy in and of itself is a key variable. ... Pedophiles come in every shape and size and backgrounds," said Cobble, the author.

Cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests "have always been around," he said. "What's occurring right now is not new in terms of cases getting national publicity. But it is a little different than in the past. ... (News stemming from the) Boston case has caused it to reach a critical mass, with accumulation of cases over time."

Experts say that steps to prevent misconduct and even the perception of misconduct are being taken on individual, parish and diocesan levels.

Avoiding suspicion "When I went to seminary, we talked about these kinds of things," Apfelbeck said.

He won't, for example, block an exit when meeting one on one with another person. And he won't meet a person alone in a room without windows.

The Rev. Tom Lindner pastor of Newman University Parish in Stevens Point, said he takes similar precautions. "I hope a good priest has a sense of what's appropriate," he said.

"We do caution priests to be prudent," Dunklee said. "We have to be careful that our actions are good actions, that we don't do something that could cause raised eyebrows, that we don't give the appearance of impropriety. ... You don't put yourself in positions where people would ask questions."

At the same time, priests say they won't let the criminal actions of a relatively small number of priests subvert their ultimate goal of helping people connect with God.

"I think what it encourages me to do is not withdraw from people," said the Rev. Dennis Lynch 59, a priest at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Parish in Wisconsin Rapids. "Ministry is a ministry to people, and when one becomes aloof or withdrawn or to the side, one cannot do ministry well."

The key is to avoid impropriety or the appearance of it, he said.

"That's always the gift of prudence, the gift of wisdom and maybe good luck," Lynch said. "A priest creates a trust in people so they come to him with both their hurts and joys. You want to be as close and compassionate with people, but there are boundaries."

Screening candidates

Cobble predicts that news coverage of the current spate of sex abuse cases will give rise to similar allegations in all denominations.

But he points out that most cases making news now are at least a decade old, and he foresees the problem dissipating as all churches move aggressively to stop sexual misconduct.

Specifically, Cobble recommends that churches require written applications for paid and volunteer staff members, check references, interview all applicants in person and provide training on sexual assault.

Churches that have done those things haven't been sued on molestation charges, he said.

Lindner said he thinks a positive result can come from the dark times that Catholics are facing.

"I hope that it might encourage a more diligent screening of candidates for priesthood," he said.

Dunklee said the Diocese of La Crosse has no sexual misconduct cases pending against it, and no priests are under investigation. Svea, the priest who pleaded guilty on sexual assault charges last month in Marathon County Circuit Court, was not a priest of the La Crosse Diocese.

"I pray for priests every day. I pray for leadership in the church, because these are tough things to deal with," Lynch said. "And as uncomfortable, tragic and sad as this is, it will be the beginning of something positive, and healthy change."

Apfelbeck reflects on the road he took to the priesthood. He studied entomology and science education at the University of Wisconsin, taught science to middle school students on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, studied flying squirrels and worked as a welder as he considered his vocation to the priesthood.

It is something he takes as seriously as life itself. "You open yourself to it. You say, 'All right, I'm willing to do this,'" he said.

He's determined not to let the actions of others affect his relationship with God or the people who depend on him.

"I think we just go on doing the things priests do," he said, "and try to do them well."

"I'm saddened when I find out about (priests who commit sexual misconduct) ... and to some degree, I'm angered by it, as well."

- The Rev. Keith Apfelbeck, Rothschild "Today, priests are viewed with question marks in everyone's mind."

- James F. Cobble Jr., author, "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in Your Church" "I pray for leadership in the church, because these are tough things to deal with."

- The Rev. Dennis Lynch, Wisconsin Rapids

Rob Orcutt/Wausau Daily Herald

The Rev. Keith Apfelbeck celebrates Mass at St. Therese Catholic Church in Rothschild.

 
 

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