'Restricted' Priest Starts New Ministry
Man Accused of Sexual Abuse Opens Branch of Upstart Church in State
By Raquel Rutledge
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Wisconsin]
July 16, 2004
Town of Sullivan — A Roman Catholic priest blacklisted by the church for alleged sexual abuse of a teenage boy is preaching a new brand of religion at an upstart church where parishioners sit with their backs to a pool table and an Old Style beer tap.
Father S. Joseph Collova, whose name was among 43 released by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this month as having been "restricted from all priestly ministries" after investigations into sexual abuse of children, has launched Wisconsin's first Independent Evangelical Catholic Church congregation.
Its ministry, conducted in the Town of Sullivan in the confines of a mobile home park recreation hall, claims to borrow from Catholic traditions while relaxing some of the Vatican's rules on homosexuality, birth control, divorce and women in the clergy, among other things.
Founded in 1997, the reformist movement now lists roughly 500 members scattered across six parishes, said the Rev. James Alan Wilkowski, who says he's the bishop for the church's northwest diocese.
Collova, 56, was incardinated, or formally accepted as a priest of the denomination, June 26.
Wilkowski said Collova contacted him a year and a half ago seeking to start a church near his residence in a mobile home park amid the cattle farms and cornfields along the Waukesha and Jefferson county line, outside Dousman.
He said Collova told him of the accusations against him.
"He presented me with a whole portfolio of documents. It was unedited. It was complete," said Wilkowski, who would not let a reporter view the documents. "After a year of investigating all this data, there was no silver bullet of guilt."
Courts dismissed lawsuit
Collova was sued in 1993 by a man in his mid-20s who said Collova sexually assaulted him hundreds of times between 1980 and 1987 when the man, referred to as "T.C." in court documents, was between 14 and 21 years old.
The courts dismissed the case without ever reviewing the merits of the allegations, citing expiration of the statute of limitations. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1997 upheld the ruling. Wisconsin law at the time required plaintiffs in some types of sexual assault lawsuits involving minors to file suit within two years of reaching adulthood.
Lawyers for T.C. argued that he had suppressed his psychological injuries and was unaware that he had suffered emotional damage until it was diagnosed in therapy when he was 26 years old.
Wilkowski, who said he himself was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest and treats the issue seriously, said he interviewed the people involved with Collova's then-ministry at St. James Catholic Church in Franklin, as well as parish people who knew his accuser.
He said he also tried to talk to the alleged victim but that he declined his offer. He said he completed a criminal background check and reviewed Collova's psychological evaluations.
"None of the reports substantiated in any way, shape, or form that Father Collova fit the profile of a predator or abuser," he said. "Joseph Collova has borne a cross that he didn't deserve for 12 years."
Wilkowski said he also sought information from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee about Collova but did not receive the information.
Law shields churches
Peter Isely, a regional representative for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that the inability of abuse victims in Wisconsin to successfully sue churches for actions by their clergy makes it easier for churches such as the Evangelical Catholic Church to accept clergy candidates with questionable backgrounds.
Isely was referring to a series of Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings since the mid-1990s that shield churches from liability for the actions of their clergy.
"This bishop knows he's insulated, that he can make any kind of decision about this guy (Collova), and he and his organization are not going to be held accountable in any way," Isely said.
Isely also faults the Roman Catholic church for not releasing details about the cases involving abusive priests.
"There's nobody on that list, according to the archdiocese, that has not been fully corroborated. The archdiocese is certain that he's a sex offender," he said. "Our question, of course, is what have they done up to this point to warn people about this priest?"
The archdiocese, which had determined that the accusations against Collova were substantiated, declined to release details of the allegations. Officials this week would not say how or when the archdiocese concluded that Collova should be restricted from all priestly ministries except that it was "in line with the assurances given in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."
The charter was developed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved in November 2002 after media reports of widespread abuse.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said the Archdiocese of Milwaukee did respond to Wilkowski's request for information about Collova. In a letter dated June 21, she said the archdiocese told Wilkowski that Collova's case had been dismissed by the courts not for lack of merit but because the statute of limitations had expired.
She said the letter talked about Collova's status with the church but did not say that Collova had been restricted — meaning he had been removed from serving as a priest, and is prohibited from celebrating the sacraments publicly and presenting himself as a priest.
Hohl would not provide a copy of the letter to the Journal Sentinel.
Hohl would not say how the church handled Collova's case but said his last assignment was from 1985 to 1993 at St. Rita Parish on Cass St. in Milwaukee.
She said the church has initiated internal proceedings against Collova for joining another religion.
"A clergy member who joins another denomination or religious sect and becomes a member of their clergy severs his ties with the Roman Catholic Church and is in schism," Hohl said.
Priest says he's being harassed
Reached at his home, Collova called the church's proceedings against him "harassment."
He defended his desire to start a new ministry, which he named The Church of St. Edith Stein, for a Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism in 1922 and was later killed at Auschwitz.
"I've always wanted to be back in ministry," said Collova, who was ordained in 1976. "I'm going to continue my vocation. Being called to be a priest is a very holy thing."
Collova said he's worked various odd jobs at Walgreens, Sentry, an auto parts store and other places since he was barred from any public ministry in 1994.
He said he'll continue as a security company dispatcher while holding the unpaid position as pastor of St. Edith Stein.
He hopes to eventually move his ministry from the mobile home park recreation hall, away from the folded chairs, the mounted deer head and television set.
He realizes that could take time. Only a handful of people showed up for a service last Sunday.
Standing on his porch in shorts and a sleeveless white T-shirt, Collova shook his head slowly when asked whether the accusations against him were true.
"No way," he said. "It went to court. It got dismissed."
Chet Kilgore, a longtime resident of the mobile home park, isn't convinced. Kilgore said he complained to the park manager and owner about Collova and his use of the recreation hall.
Other neighbors had no complaints about Collova's church.
Beth Kruse has lived down the street from Collova for about four years. She has no worries about having him around her son, 12, she said.
"He's just a very jolly, happy-go-lucky person," Kruse said. "He has never struck me as the type of person that I would feel the need to be concerned about."
Pete Venturi was an altar boy when Collova was assigned to St. James. He was friends with T.C. and has known Collova for 25 years. His name is the only one listed on a bulletin under Proud Sponsors of St. Edith Stein.
"The man does not have a bad bone in his body." Venturi said. "I just want to see a man who was born to be a priest be a priest."
Tom Heinen of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
A NEW CHURCH
— The Independent Evangelical Catholic Church in America was consecrated in 1997. It has six parishes — one each in Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Wisconsin and London, England, and fewer than 500 members
— It was formed so that it "may continue to profess and witness the Gospels in Catholic tradition in a radical unconditional spirit of love and freedom from the bigotry and prejudices that affects contemporary society and faith communities."
— As a reformed Catholic faith community, it welcomes all people who have been forgotten, dismissed or rejected by society and other faith communities. It celebrates the sacramental and liturgical heritage of Catholicism, independent of Rome. It also:
— Welcomes married priests, male and female.
— Is open to same-sex marriages.
— Accepts and allows divorced people to remarry.
— Encourages family planning.
Source: www.iecca.org and interview with the Rev. James Alan Wilkowski, Evangelical Catholic Bishop for the Diocese of the Northwest
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