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  Bishops Bar Abusers 'Zero-Tolerance' Policy Means Allen to Be Removed

By Maureen Hayden, Courier & Press staff writer 464-7433 or maureenh@evansville.net
Evansville Courier & Press
June 15, 2002

In a dramatic vote that has significant implications for Roman Catholics in Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky, the nation's Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly for a "zero-tolerance" policy on clergy sex abuse.

The policy, which many bishops vow to implement immediately, means the certain removal of one Evansville diocese priest, the Rev. Michael Allen; the potential removal of another priest in the Evansville diocese, the Rev. Jean Vogler; and the removal of an unknown number of priests in specialized ministries in the Owensboro Catholic diocese, which covers Western Kentucky.

On the same day he voted to support the policy, Evansville Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger told the Evansville Courier & Press that new allegations have been made involving a priest in active ministry in the diocese. Gettelfinger said the priest will be suspended from ministry within a week.

Gettelfinger declined to name the priest, but acknowledged it will be the seventh priest in his diocese who has been accused of or admitted to sexual misconduct involving children.

Gettelfinger said the dramatic language of the policy, which eliminated an earlier proposed option of letting some priests stay in the ministry if their abuse had occurred in the past, was a clear signal to the world.

"We need to indicate to the world that we are serious about protecting children from harm," Gettelfinger said in an interview after the vote. "We are determined to do all we can to make sure there is no risk to the children in our care, at least the risk we can control."

The bishops don't have to wait for Vatican approval to implement the policy, said Gettelfinger and other church officials who were gathered in Dallas for the historic vote by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The immediate impact, said Gettelfinger, is that Allen, 57, pastor of St. Peter Celestine Catholic Church in Celestine, Ind., will be terminated from active ministry, possibly within the next few days. He will be allowed to remain a priest, but will not be allowed to take part in any ministry that involves contact with parishioners.

"He can have no assignment," said Gettelfinger. "Either in a restricted role within the church or any other ministry. In other words, he will not be ministering as a priest in any way in the Evansville diocese."

Gettelfinger said it was unclear how soon Allen would have to leave the parish in rural Dubois County, but said it may be a matter of days. Gettelfinger said the timing involves some logistics, including the availability of another priest to serve the parish.

Gettelfinger is facing a logistical challenge of significant proportions: In the last six weeks, he's terminated one priest from active ministry, accepted the resignation of another; suspended from ministry a priest accused by two women of abuse; and is preparing to suspend another priest who has been accused of sexual misconduct.

"This has been a very difficult time," said Gettelfinger.

Gettelfinger said it is unclear what will happen to Vogler, who is officially the associate pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Downtown Evansville, but is the only full-time priest that serves the parish of about 150 families.

Vogler went to prison after admitting he had ordered and received child pornography through the mail. After his prison term, he went through almost eight months of treatment for sexual offenders.

The language of the bishops' new policy on sex abuse is somewhat unclear about exactly what "sexual abuse" constitutes. Gettelfinger said the definition will require clarification.

"That's part of the evolving process which will now take place," said Gettelfinger.

The decision to terminate Allen from any active ministry is not a decision Gettelfinger wanted to make. He has supported several priests' return to active ministry after they had been through treatment for sexual misconduct.

Gettelfinger allowed Allen to return to active ministry after the priest was sent for treatment after admitting that more than 20 years ago he initiated a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy, who had been hospitalized for depression.

Allen's sexual misconduct didn't become public knowledge until it was reported in early May in the Courier & Press. After the report was published, Gettelfinger announced Allen would continue as pastor at St. Peter Celestine. It was a decision applauded by parishioners.

Gettelfinger said he cast his ballot for the revised "zero- tolerance" policy with "great sadness" because he knew what it would mean for Allen.

"I truly believe he is a man who confessed to this terrible sin and crime, repented, and has been rehabilitated and still has much to offer," said Gettelfinger.

"I'm sure he's terribly shocked and saddened and I think the parish will be distraught. And I regret that they have to find out about this in the media, over this long distance."

But Gettelfinger said voting for and supporting the new policy was vital to restoring trust in the church and to making the amends needed to victims of abuse and their families.

"It was essential I support it, as part of showing my sorrow for the harm done to victims by priests, and for the mistakes I've made," said Gettelfinger. "As an entire body of bishops, we must support this new policy ... We must protect children first."

Meanwhile, the policy also will impact priests in Western Kentucky who have been returned to ministry after treatment for sexual abuse of minors.

Owensboro Bishop John McRaith revealed last week in an interview with the Evansville Courier & Press that he had returned several priests to what he called "specialized ministry" after sending them for treatment.

McRaith would not disclose how many priests in his diocese that involved.

McRaith didn't return requests for interviews while in Dallas. He had been hospitalized Thursday evening, after fainting outside the room where the bishops had been debating the sex abuse policy. He returned to conference session Friday morning.

 
 

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