GARRETT PARK (MD)
Catholic Standard [Archdiocese of Washington DC]
October 6, 2022
By Mark Zimmerman
Five days after Father Robert Buchmeier, the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Garrett Park, Maryland, was placed on administrative leave and his priestly faculties were suspended following an allegation of abuse of minors from decades earlier before he was a priest, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory met at that church to talk with, listen to and pray with parishioners and members of the Holy Cross School community.
“You are here because of your love for this parish, your love for Father Bob, and your love for our Church, and I thank you for that, from the bottom of my heart,” Washington’s archbishop told the approximately 140 people gathered at the church on the evening of Wednesday Oct. 5.
Seated at a table in front of the church’s sanctuary, the cardinal had greeted the people there moments earlier, saying, “It’s a difficult moment for your parish, and a difficult moment for me.”
Cardinal Gregory noted, “We are meeting here in church before the table of the Lord, which is usually the place where we gather in joy and hope to offer worship to God,” and he added that he recognized that “Father Bob has been a devoted servant to this community and a personal friend to many of you.”
In an opening prayer, the cardinal asked Jesus to unite His suffering on the cross with “the pain of all those who have been hurt in body, mind and spirt by those who have betrayed the trust placed in them.” He asked the Holy Spirit to “heal our people’s wounds and transform their brokenness into wholeness.”
The cardinal prayed for all those who have been harmed by sexual abuse and for their families, and he also prayed for the Holy Cross parish and school communities, “that they may be comforted and strengthened at this time.”
After the opening prayer, Cardinal Gregory noted, “Next year I will mark 50 years as a priest and 40 years as a bishop. Without a doubt the most challenging moments of my ministry have been spent on a handful of evenings just like this, with faith communities just like yours – communities who have been unraveled by the removal of a respected priest pastor who is also, in many cases, a close family friend, all due to allegations of sexual misconduct with minors.”
They had gathered “in shock” together as a faith community that evening, he said, to pray and listen, and for archdiocesan officials to respond openly and transparently to questions that had arisen.
Seated beside the cardinal were five officials from The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington: Kelly Branaman, the Secretary for Catholic Schools and Superintendent of Schools; Courtney Chase, Executive Director of Child Protection & Safe Environment; Father Anthony Lickteig, Vicar for Clergy and Secretary for Ministerial Leadership; Jeannine Marino, the archdiocese’s Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns; and Sara Blauvelt, the archdiocese’s Director for Catechesis.
Father Lickteig said, “We’re here as leadership to provide information and listen to you.”
In his remarks, Cardinal Gregory pointed out how the series of events involving Holy Cross’s pastor had unfolded.
He said that on Friday Sept. 30, the Diocese of Arlington was informed by a parishioner there of the allegation against Father Buchmeier, and that morning, following that diocese’s child protection policy, that information was relayed to the Archdiocese of Washington, since he is a priest of the archdiocese, and the Diocese of Arlington also reported the allegation to local law enforcement in Alexandria, the jurisdiction where the incident was alleged to have occurred. Washington archdiocesan officials met that afternoon to open the process required by the archdiocese’s Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy, which is on the archdiocesan website at adw.org.
“By the end of that day, per our policy, Father Buchmeier was informed of the allegation against him, removed from ministry, placed on administrative leave and asked to leave the parish property,” the cardinal said. “The parish and school communities were immediately notified. I assure you that under no circumstances was anything withheld from you or the release of this information delayed for any reason. As soon as we knew, we acted. Again I say, as soon as we knew, we acted.”
Cardinal Gregory said the archdiocese doesn’t have the resources or skill necessary to conduct intensive allegations of alleged misconduct from many years ago. He said that when such an allegation becomes known, “We report it at once to local law enforcement and we pledge our full cooperation. We do not impede, intervene in, or tamper with investigations by civil authorities.”
Then the cardinal emphasized that “it is important to stress that at this time Father Buchmeier has not been indicted, arrested, charged with a crime, or convicted of any wrongdoing. Suggesting otherwise would not only be irresponsible, it would be wrong. He deserves the presumption of innocence until or unless determined otherwise.”
He explained that once the results of the civil investigation are made known to the archdiocese and the legal process concludes, the archdiocese’s Child Protection Advisory Board of interdisciplinary experts convenes to make a recommendation to the archbishop regarding that priest’s continued fitness for ministry.
“I should point out that nothing in either Father’s seminary experience or his record of priestly service indicates any behavior that would have impeded his ordination or caused concern to us in assigning him to this or any other parish ministry,” Cardinal Gregory said.
Concluding his remarks, the cardinal said the archdiocese “will commit to being as open and transparent as we can be with you without compromising the criminal investigation. That means we cannot share everything we learn, but we will share all we are permitted to by civil authorities in as timely a way as possible.”
He emphasized that if anyone at the parish or school has experienced abuse or has information that could assist in this investigation, they should contact the police immediately.
Cardinal Gregory said he could understand the range of emotions that members of the Holy Cross parish and school communities must be experiencing now, because he shares them. He said that as their archbishop, “I have pledged to do all I can to provide the safest environments possible in our parishes and schools.”
He added, “This process, which may seem draconian to some of you even as it seems too passive to others, is the result of years of learning by the Church, much of it regrettably about how not to approach these situations. I ask for your patience as we all await this outcome.”
After pledging his prayers and support for them and asking for their prayers for all those impacted by that news, the cardinal asked Father Lickteig, the archdiocese’s Vicar for Clergy, to make remarks.
The priest, who in a Sept. 30 letter had notified the Holy Cross community of the accusation against Father Buchmeier, said the alleged sexual abuse took place in Alexandria, before the priest entered the seminary in 1987 and was ordained in 1991.
Father Lickteig echoed the cardinal’s remarks that the actions taken immediately by the archdiocese in Father Buchmeier’s case followed its Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy, and he likewise emphasized that those steps were not meant to cast judgment on the guilt or innocence of the priest.
Courtney Chase, the archdiocese’s Executive Director of Child Protection & Safe Environment who is a licensed clinical social worker, addressed the gathering saying, “We are here to support you in this very difficult time.”
She also noted that the archdiocese’s Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy was immediately implemented in that case, and she said that if members of the community have any questions, they can call her. Chase’s phone number is 301-853-5302.
Later in discussing the policy, Chase pointed out that adults who work with minors at parishes or schools are required to take child protection training and have a background check, and youth receive age-appropriate education about being safe and how to recognize signs of abuse, and are encouraged to discuss those matters with their families at home.
Father Lickteig told the Holy Cross community that Father David Fitz-Patrick, a veteran priest who retired in 2019 after serving as pastor at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Washington, D.C., will serve as the administrator of Holy Cross Parish and School through the end of this calendar year.
Then the people in attendance at the meeting in Holy Cross Church were invited to ask questions or make comments.
A woman asked about the vetting procedures for determining the credibility of accusers, and she noted, “Everyone in the church knows Father Robert, but we don’t know the individual who has turned our lives upside down.”
Cardinal Gregory said that is the essence of investigation by civil authorities in the case, to determine the credibility and truthfulness of the allegations.
Moments later, the cardinal noted that his latest column for the Catholic Standard emphasized “respect for those who come forward” with abuse allegations.
After a woman asked about how the news about Father Buchmeier was being communicated to the Holy Cross School community, Kelly Branaman, the Secretary for Catholic Schools and Superintendent of Schools, noted that a counselor has been on site to support children there this week. “Having that support as early as possible is critical,” she said.
Lisa Kane, the principal of Holy Cross School, said some parents had come to her asking the school not to discuss the matter with their children, while other parents wanted that to happen. She said a social worker would be coming to the school that next day to offer advice for communicating with older and younger students about what has happened.
One woman stood up and noted that she has been a Holy Cross parishioner for 40 years, and her two children graduated from the school and were altar servers there. “I know Father Robert to be a good person,” she said, noting that he was an Eagle Scout and very respected by the scouting community.
She said she recognized the importance of such investigations, and in her lifetime has known about predators and children being abused, “and also adults being wrongfully accused.” In an emotional voice, the woman added “It’s a sad, unfortunate situation, very upsetting. I can’t bring myself to tell my children.”
Another woman said she wanted to offer “love and support” to Father Buchmeier… He is a very good man, a very good man. He brought me back to the Church.” She said that priest “is very fit for ministry, in my opinion.”
After a questioner asked about how long the new administrator would be serving at the parish, Father Lickteig said, “No matter what happens, there will be somebody here to take care of you.”
Then a woman stood near the back of the church and said that when she was younger, she had attended the sentencing of a priest whom she had known for many years at her parish.
“It’s very important that we keep children and their safety at the forefront,” she said, also emphasizing the importance of understanding the trauma that people who have been abused experience.
She added, “I want to thank you for moving so quickly,” and some people in the church responded with applause.
One of the last Holy Cross community members to speak was a woman who said, “In my heart, I’m assuming Father Robert is innocent,” and she asked what would the archdiocese do if that is found to be the case.
Cardinal Gregory said that if the police investigation determines that the priest is not guilty of a crime, and if the Child Protection and Safe Environment Advisory Board recommends that he is fit for ministry, then “if everything lines up as you hope, I will come back to this parish and formally install him as pastor.”
As the meeting concluded, Cardinal Gregory thanked the people for coming and “opening your heart, whether in support of your friend and pastor or in support of people harmed.”
Before the cardinal celebrated a Mass there about 10 minutes later, clusters of parishioners talked together in different sections of the church. Archdiocesan representatives gave people a handout on “Talking to Children about the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Church.”
At the Mass, Lisa Kane the school’s principal, offered prayers, that Jesus will accompany, guide and console the members of the Holy Cross community at this difficult time, and that victims of sexual abuse will experience compassion and love and find hope and healing in the risen Christ. She also offered a prayer for “Father Bob and all those who love and support him and wish the best for him.”
The Gospel reading from St. Mark was about Jesus calming the storm at sea.
Cardinal Gregory in his homily noted that evening’s first reading from the Book of Revelation, with St. John the Evangelist’s vision of the one on the heavenly throne saying, “Behold I make all things new,” was appropriate for their gathering.
“That statement is one we should take with us this evening and certainly in this very difficult time… What has happened is not the end,” the cardinal said. He added, “May those words be true here at Holy Cross, in our local archdiocese and in all of our lives. May God make all things new, fix up what is broken, and allow us to move forward in hope.”