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  Louisville Priest Removed from Post; Archbishop Cites New Policy on Child Sex Abuse

By Andrew Wolfson
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY)
June 20, 2002

Less than a week after the nation's Roman Catholic bishops adopted their new policy for dealing with sexually abusive priests, it has claimed its first cleric in the Archdiocese of Louisville.

The archdiocese announced yesterday that the Rev. Joseph Stoltz, a popular figure at St. William Church in Old Louisville, had been removed from ministry.

In a brief statement, the archdiocese said that a victim came forward in 1991 to report an incident of child abuse that had occurred in the 1970s. Cecelia Price, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, confirmed in an interview that the incident involved sexual abuse. The archdiocese declined to provide any other details.

In a letter to parishioners, Stoltz said that about 25 years ago, "as a very young priest, I used some very poor judgment and made some terrible mistakes. . . . I was . . . emotionally immature, terribly ashamed with deeply conflicted inner feelings as person and priest. I sought affection, connection and intimacy in, as the song goes, 'all the wrong places.' "

Several parishioners said they cried when they learned the news about Stoltz yesterday in letters from him and Thomas C. Kelly, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

"I have to tell you that my heart is just broken," said Terry Taylor, a parish member who is also assistant director of the Thomas Merton Foundation. Stoltz "is one of the most sensitive and thoughtful people I have known."

IN INTERVIEWS, parishioners also said Stoltz's removal shows the harshness of the Charter for the Protection of Young People adopted last Friday in Dallas by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The policy, which Kelly cited in removing Stoltz Monday, provides that "for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor - past, present or future," the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.

"I really feel they are making an example of Father Stoltz so the public will feel better about the church," said Jo Blinco, who lives in Hurstbourne and drives past several Catholic churches to get to St. William, 1226 W. Oak St. "It is a peace and justice church, and that is what I stand for," she said.

She said Stoltz counseled her through troubled emotional times 10 years ago. "He was my savior," she said.

Price, the archdiocese's spokeswoman, said Kelly "is always sad when he has to remove a priest under these circumstances, but he feels it is important to honor the decision that the bishops made together in the charter."

Stoltz will remain a priest but will be barred from wearing clerical garments, presenting himself as a priest, or performing any sacramental ministry, Price said. He will continue to be paid and provided a place to live, she said.

Stoltz, who was ordained in 1973, didn't return a phone message.

He becomes the fourth local Catholic clergyman to leave the ministry in the wake of sex-abuse allegations - most in lawsuits - that began in March with the retirement of the Rev. Louis E. Miller. Since then two other Louisville pastors have resigned, as has Lexington Bishop J. Kendrick Williams. Williams resigned amid allegations from the time he was a priest in the Louisville archdiocese.

A TOTAL of 130 people have filed lawsuits against the archdiocese, naming 18 priests and other church employees. No priests or employees have been named as defendants. Stoltz has not been named in any of the suits.

In its statement, the archdiocese said that after the victim came forward in 1991, Stoltz was evaluated and placed on a restricted ministry, "per our policies at the time."

He was assigned to serve as "sacramental moderator" at St. William, which meant he helped with weekend liturgies, said Mass and took confessions.

He had to handle such duties because the church's pastoral administrator, Sharan Benton, who handles many duties entrusted elsewhere to priests, is a woman and cannot be ordained.

Price said that as part of the restricted ministry, Benton and other church leaders were told about the incident involving Stoltz.

Stoltz said in his letter that when the victim came forward, 15 years after the incident, "I had to confront my actions, make a sincere apology, seek forgiveness and make amends."

He said he left a ministry at what was then called Our Lady of Peace hospital, underwent years of therapy, and with the help of Kelly and others, "I find myself a much, much happier, healthier person."

He also said, "I care for and respect children, as you have plainly seen in my ministry among you."

The St. William parish, which was established in 1901, has 442 members. Lay people are heavily involved in decision-making and church functions, and Benton and Stoltz shared many of the duties that elsewhere fall to a single pastor.

Stoltz also tried to balance the views of more liberal parish members and the more conservative theology of the Catholic Church.

IN 1999, for example, for months several people remained standing throughout Sunday Mass after the church, which considers itself welcoming to gays and lesbians, refused to allow a lesbian couple to have their union blessed there. "We met and agonized and cried and struggled, and basically didn't feel that at this stage in the Catholic Church's teaching and development we could do that," Stoltz said at the time.

Parishioner Tamar Byczek, a national board member for Call to Action, a 25,000-member Catholic reform group, said she had been "crying all day" since she learned about Stoltz.

"Not to minimize what he did, but he is a very gifted priest," she said. "His homilies were from the heart. He was one of the best liturgists in the U.S. He was great at collaborating with lay people, which is what Vatican II was supposed to be all about."

LETTER FROM REV. JOE STOLZ

Dear People of St. William,

With a heavy, contrite heart do I write you this last letter. Within a few days you will, if you have not already, receive a letter from Archbishop Kelly letting you know that I have been removed from public ministry within the church because of the recently approved "no tolerance" document approved by our bishops in Dallas.

Some 25 years ago, as a very young priest I used some very poor judgment and made some terrible mistakes. Some 15 years later, I had to confront my actions, make a sincere apology, seek forgiveness and make amends. I am not at liberty to share much more of this part of this lamentable event.

Pursuant to this crisis, I left my ministry at Our Lady of Peace and was put on a temporary sabbatical. I underwent several batteries of psychological tests, several years of intensive "insight psychotherapy," and then group therapy. I have grown as a man and as a human being. I have deep and mature, lasting and appropriate relationships with a number of healthy and wholesome friends.

Yet and so, you may be asking yourself now as you read this letter, "How could you?" "Why in the world would you do such a thing?" Without minimizing the harm I have done or glossing over these tragic events, let me simply state that having entered and endured the old seminary system at 14 until ordination at 25, in my youth, and early 20's, I was ... emotionally immature, terribly ashamed with deeply conflicted inner feelings, as person and priest. I sought affection, connection and intimacy in, as the song goes, "all the wrong places."

Fortunately with help I have received from therapists, friends, my mother, my deceased brother Dave, our Archbishop, colleagues and other faithful friends, I find myself a much, much happier, healthier person. I care for and respect children, as you have plainly seen in my ministry among you.

A little over a decade ago, while I was still reeling from my disgrace and confronting the terrible wrong I had done, the Archbishop suggested I "help out" at St. William since they had been without a priest for several months after the resignation of Jim Flynn as pastor. Though the first few years were difficult, eventually it, you, became an oasis in a desert for my battered soul. The rest of the story you know well.

As for the future, I do have concerns about our church's welfare in the near future, yet no one Christian community lives or dies because of one person, except the person of Jesus, the Christ. I continue to place my hands and my future in his hands and in a loving God of compassion.

Enclosed you will find my homily from the healing service we held on Wednesday, June 12 at St. William to address this scandal in the church. It expresses yet again another part of what I want to say to one and all.

But let me say again: I am so sorry for disappointing any of you. I beg forgiveness and offer a sincere and heartfelt apology to all and any whom I may have offended by my sins or human weaknesses. While I was in your midst I did my best to help our parish grow, to stay true to our charism of peace and justice, and live out our shared mission statement by being a compassionate priest who was open and accepting to one and all.

I have some measure of hope for the future for us all, for God is love.

Sincerely,

Joe

CORRECTION:

published July 2, 2002 p.A2 Because of a reporter's error, a June 20 story about the Rev. Joseph Stoltz's removal from ministry at St. William Church misspelled the last name of parishioner Jo Blincoe.

 
 

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