Reality Hits As Priests Depart
Metro Detroit Parishioners Tearful, Joyful over Archdiocese's Zero-Tolerance Policy
By Kim Kozlowski and Marisa Schultz
July 14, 2002
Livonia -- Susan Ianni always knew she could depend on the Rev. Edmund Borycz. He presided over her marriage and the renewal of her marriage vows. He baptized one of her sons, gave the other his first communion and even let both stay the night with him.
That's why Ianni couldn't believe it when Borycz was removed as pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church because of alleged sexual misconduct with children. Calling his removal a wrongful discharge, she recently wrote a $1,000 check to begin his legal fund.
"I personally think Father Borycz should sue," said Ianni, 45. "He never even had a chance to answer any of these allegations."
For Ianni and hundreds of other Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit, zero tolerance is no longer a buzzword but a stunning reality. In the month since Cardinal Adam Maida has been implementing the bishops' new policy for sexually abusive priests, five priests have been banished from their ministries -- leaving behind a mourning flock and, in some cases, a division in the Catholic community that could take years to heal.
The number doesn't include 13 additional priests whose cases are under consideration and others who Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan has suggested are expected to face the same fate.
By the time the priest crisis is completely resolved in the archdiocese, its toll could reach 20 priests -- beloved shepherds who were a part of so many lives that, to some of the people they worked with, their alleged sins almost seem unbelievable.
Theresa Gorski struggled to hold back tears recently when she recalled the Rev. Neil Emon, who is in a Catholic religious order called the Crosier Fathers and Brothers. Emon was previously assistant pastor of St. Alfred in Taylor and recently was stripped of his ministry in Arizona following allegations of sexual abuse.
"He was such a good man," said Gorski. "I can't believe he did anything like that. If he did, he did it. But it won't ever erase the good he did for me."
Bishops 'have no choice'
Before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in Dallas last month, Catholics across the nation were demanding swift and harsh discipline against priests who harmed children even once. The bishops, many of whom were blamed for covering up past abuses, responded to outcry by toughening their policy.
But observers predicted that removing priests with past allegations of sexual misconduct would be one of the biggest challenges.
"The pattern seems to be among the people in the pews is they are very strongly in favor of zero tolerance until they find out their pastor is going to removed for something they did 20 years ago," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of The American, a Jesuit-run weekly Catholic magazine. "But the bishops don't have any choice -- this was the policy that was adopted."
The St. Alfred community has been experiencing those mixed feelings. Not only is it mourning Emon, who served more than 10 years, from 1989-2000, but some parishioners also are collecting signatures supporting the return of their pastor, the Rev. Dennis Laesch. He was removed in May pending a review of alleged sexual misconduct.
Before his departure, Laesch promised he would be back. A woman representing the group lobbying for his return declined to comment, citing her distrust of the media.
"We're doing better than expected," said Sue Baird, president of St. Alfred parish council. "There's a lot of sadness. People initially were shocked, and now they're saddened by the whole thing. It's hard to comprehend."
Parishioners divided But not all parishioners are surprised at the removal of some priests, and many are glad the bishops finally created some serious disciplinary measures.
Redford resident Paul Fitzgerald, for instance, attended St. Suzanne's Church in Detroit from 1972-81 when the Rev. Robert Wyzgoski was pastor. When Fitzgerald was elected president of the Parent/Teachers Guild at St. Suzanne's school around 1973, he received numerous complaints about Wyzgoski from parents who claimed that the pastor was too "touchy-feely" with their teen-aged daughters.
Although he never reported any suspicions to the police, when Fitzgerald heard that his former pastor had been removed from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Beverly Hills, he didn't gasp. "I was only surprised that it took so long," Fitzgerald said.
Wyzgoski, however, is still deeply missed by parishioners, who prayed for him at Mass last Sunday.
"We miss him," said Pat Bentley of Birmingham, who has attended the parish since 1962. "He was a very special man."
Wyzgoski is among the eight priests under review by the archdiocese. The eight men have credible allegations of misconduct, but because many were lodged so long ago, they are not subject to criminal repercussions because the statute of limitations has run out.
In accordance with the national policy adopted in Dallas, a review board must consider the past allegations and recommend their fate to Cardinal Maida.
The board has two options to suggest: return them to their work or strip them of their ministry. If a priest loses his ministry, he would not be allowed to celebrate Mass, wear clerical garb or present himself as a priest.
In extreme cases, Cardinal Maida would have the option of submitting a request to the Vatican to defrock a priest.
Ned McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese, could not predict when the review would be finished.
"We're trying to be deliberate and be as fair as possible," he said.
Swift action urged
Edward Gentile, 35, thinks the archdiocese should move swiftly to protect the integrity of the bishops' policy -- as well as priests who may be wrongly accused.
Gentile remembers being in an uncomfortable situation with Borycz when he was 14. Although the priest made no advances, Gentile thinks the archdiocese needed to review allegations against Borycz and any other clergyman.
"It had to be done," said the Whitmore Lake resident. "I really think the one-strike rule is the way to go."
It still doesn't sit well with parishioners like Susan Wellman, who thought the world of the Rev. James Vedro, a Crosier priest removed from his ministry at St. Joseph's in Trenton. However, unlike the other priests who have been removed, Vedro's allegation involved an adult and his religious order wanted to take all allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously.
"I could care less what he did 30 years ago," Wellman said. "I would have loved to see him stay."
But Vedro won't be seen there again anytime soon. Two Sundays ago, a new priest celebrated mass, the first service without Vedro.
"I cried at that mass," Wellman said. "It was like mourning a death."
?!--Crisis in the church: Priests and sex abuse --?
Crisis in the church: Priests and sex abuse
TODAY: In its first month, the Catholic zero-tolerance policy for abusive priests has hit home in the parishes of Metro Detroit's 18 accused priests. Many parishioners are divided or mourning over the loss of their religious leaders, despite the accusations against them.
MONDAY: The new policy on sex abuse has not been formally adopted by Catholic religious orders, whose priests account for about 300 of the 785 priests working in Metro Detroit. Archdiocesan officials insist, however, they will still be held to strict standards.
Eighteen priests within the Archdiocese of Detroit have been temporarily or permanently removed from parishes.
Banned from ministry
* Gary Beuche, SS. John and Paul Catholic Church in Washington Township
* Tony Conti, All Saints, Memphis, Mich.
* Michael Daly, former chaplain at Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit
* Robert Haener, former chaplain at Angela Hospice, Livonia
* Walter Lezuchowski, St. Aloysius, Romulus
Restricted from ministry pending review of bishops' policy
* Robert Burkholder, St. Hugh, Southgate
* Joseph Femminineo, St. Rita, Holly
* Lawrence Nawrocki, St. Isidore, Macomb Township
* Gerald Shirilla, St. Mary Catholic Church, Alpena
* Joseph Sito, St. Cletus, Warren
Administrative leave pending review of allegations
* Edmund Borycz, St. Michael, Livonia
* Neil Emon of the Crosier Fathers and Brothers, formerly of St. Alfred, Taylor
* James Vedro, also of the Crosiers, formerly of St. Joseph, Trenton
* Dennis Duggan, St. Suzanne and Our Lady Gate of Heaven, Detroit
* Dennis Laesch, St. Alfred, Taylor
* Jude Ellinghausen, SS. Peter and Paul in North Branch, Mich.; and St. Patrick Mission, Clifford, Mich.
* Robert Wyzgoski, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Beverly Hills
* Alfred Miller, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Temperance
Source: Archdiocese of Detroit
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