Priest Put on Leave Is Accused of Abuse

By Tom Heinen
Journal Sentinel Online
March 19, 2004

The pastor of a Catholic parish in Port Washington who went on temporary leave last month was removed from pastoral duties as an investigator appointed by the archdiocese looked into an allegation that he sexually abused a minor more than 25 years ago, church officials acknowledged Friday.

Although the archdiocese did not give reasons when Father Joseph Haas began his leave Feb. 13, the priest issued a letter on his own that day to his parishioners, saying he was taking a medical leave on doctors orders "to ensure my good health."

The secrecy rankled leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who had the victim speak at a news conference in Madison last week as legislators considered a clergy sexual abuse bill and then distributed fliers detailing the allegation last weekend at and in the neighborhood around St. Peter of Alcantra Church in Port Washington and the church in Milwaukee where Haas served at the time of the alleged abuse.

That action prompted Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan to send a letter Friday to the homes of all registered parishioners from St. Peter acknowledging the allegation against Haas, saying that the archdiocese had been criticized in the past for not sufficiently involving law enforcement officials, and detailing the procedures the archdiocese was following. The letter, which also will be placed in St. Peter's bulletins at all Masses this weekend, says that the actions by the victims group and coverage by some news media necessitated a response.

"My goal is to protect children, respond justly to the reports of abuse and help the person making the allegations," Dolan wrote, adding that Milwaukee County's district attorney did not want the church to speak publicly on pending cases. "This has been a troubling 10 days for the alleged victim, for you, for your pastor and for me. My policy has always been to tell you all I can as soon as I possibly can."

Archdiocesan policies call for allegations first to be turned over to the local district attorney without notifying the accused priest. If they choose not to prosecute, or if the alleged incident is too old to be prosecuted within the statutes of limitation, the archdiocese then removes the priest temporarily from ministry without an explanation while one of the former Milwaukee police detectives it has hired investigates the complaint.

Woman cites abuse

In this case, the alleged victim, Heather Smith, 34, came from her current residence in Iowa to meet with an archdiocesan official on Jan. 30.

She told the Journal Sentinel in a subsequent interview that she was abused in the winter of 1977-'78 while a second-grade student at Holy Rosary School. That parish has since merged with two other parishes to form Three Holy Women Parish. Haas took her swimming and rubbed himself against her in the water some six to 12 times and on another occasion forced her to perform oral sex in a rectory bedroom, she said.

"I do remember feeling a sick, nauseated, scared feeling in my stomach, and that feeling got worse every time it happened," she said of the swimming pool incidents. "And I knew that something wasn't right. There was something wrong with this, but I didn't know how to stop it."

Now an elementary school teacher and mother of three in Iowa, she has had problems throughout her life since then with trusting men, with authority, and with other issues, she said.

The allegation was forwarded on Feb. 2 to Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, who personally reviewed the archdiocese's file on Feb. 6. The archdiocese received a letter from McCann on Feb. 10 that - without determining whether the allegation was true - said the alleged felony incident was too old to be prosecuted.

A news release the archdiocese issued Friday noted that a less serious complaint involving alleged "inappropriate behavior" by Haas in 2000 was still being reviewed by McCann's office, even though police at the time investigated it, did not substantiate it, and sought no charges.

McCann said Friday that this alleged incident was too old to prosecute even if it were true because it fell outside the three-year statute of limitation for misdemeanors.

Haas' brother, Eugene Haas of Wauwatosa, spoke on behalf of him in a telephone interview Friday, saying the priest was at his side.

"He vigorously and vehemently denies the allegation," Eugene Haas said of Smith's accusation, saying that his brother does not remember Smith and that the priest's feeling is that "this is a case of mistaken identity, I suppose."

Eugene Haas said his brother also denies that the second, less serious incident, occurred.


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