Drayton Parish Shocked
Bishop Strips Priest of Duties, Sending Him to Treatment, Promising Investigation
By Stephen J. Lee
Grand Forks Herald
February 16, 2002
Shock and disbelief were the common reactions Friday from former parishioners of the priest said to have admitted sexual misconduct with children.
The Rev. Charles Fischer on Wednesday told Bishop Samuel Aquila, head of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo, that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with children, Aquila said in a news release Friday.
The bishop quickly stripped Fischer of his priestly duties and job, sent him into treatment and informed law enforcement and social service authorities.
Fischer was a priest in St. Edward's church in Drayton from October, 1995, until June, 2000, when he was transferred to teach and live at Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo.
While pastor at St. Edward's, Fischer also served at two mission congregations: Assumption in Pembina, N.D., and St. Thomas in St. Thomas, N.D.
The sexual misconduct happened in Pembina County, during the five years Fischer spent there, church officials said.
We are fully cooperating with whatever legal obligations the diocese would have, said the Rev. Gregory Schlesselmann, vicar general of the diocese. We have turned over all the information we have to the Pembina County social services department and to the Pembina County sheriff's office.
Pembina County Sheriff Joe Martindale said he learned Thursday of Fischer's admission from church officials. Agents of the state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation are leading the investigation, with his department's help, Martindale said.
Quick response In the wake of larger sexual misconduct scandals being reported on the East Coast, church officials in Fargo appear to be acting with dispatch in Fischer's case.
Bishop Aquila, new coadjutor bishop in the Fargo diocese, said when Fischer told him of the misconduct on Wednesday, he immediately withdrew (Fischer's) priestly faculties and began an investigation.
To the families of those children I sincerely and deeply regret the hurt caused by Father Fischer's inexcusable actions, Aquila said in the release. Nothing can diminish the pain caused by this kind of breach of trust. Sexual misconduct by any employee or clergyman of the diocese is gravely wrong and will not be tolerated.
Thursday, Fischer resigned his post teaching theology at Cardinal Muench, which is a minor seminary that includes high school and undergraduate college programs for boys and men intending to be priests. Church officials would not say whether any misconduct by Fischer happened at the seminary.
In treatment Fischer is undergoing treatment at an undisclosed location, Schlesselmann said, while also remaining available for BCI investigators. A Fargo television station reported he was in a Fargo psychiatric hospital, but church officials would not confirm that, citing Fischer's privacy.
Fischer is 40, was born in Wisconsin and graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Schlesselmann said.
Fischer attended seminary in Rome, Italy, which isn't common for Americans, and was ordained a priest there in 1990. He earned a doctorate in theology, an academic degree equivalent to a Ph.D., and became fluent in Italian. Fischer served as a priest of the diocese of Subiaco in Italy, before coming to the Fargo diocese in June, 1994, Schlesselmann said. After serving several months at a Fargo parish, he was assigned to Drayton.
Remains a priest Removing Fischer's faculties, as a priest is not the most severe discipline possible within the church, Schlesselmann said. Fischer remains a priest within the diocese, but cannot perform any priestly functions; he was not made a lay person again, or excommunicated.
No diocesan officials knew of any previous misconduct by Fischer before he came to Fargo, and no inkling of misconduct before the priest came to Aquila Wednesday to admit it, Schlesselmann said.
This came as a complete shock, Schlesselmann said.
Parishioners in Drayton said the news of Fischer's admission came as a total surprise.
Remembered well Tyler Olson and Brandon Dickens, both 18 and seniors at Drayton's high school and active at St. Edward's, said they remembered Fischer as a good man and a good priest.
He used to be my teacher in Sunday school, Olson said Friday. He took us bowling to Fargo and Grand Forks. He was a really fun guy. It was always a group of boys he drove to these one-day bowling trips, never girls in the group, Olson said.
But another adult always came along on the day trips to Fargo and Grand Forks, Dicken said. Both young men said they never saw Fischer act inappropriately with anyone.
He was always a nice guy, Olson said.
This isn't going to shake his faith, Olson said, although we had a whole bunch of kids making fun of it at school today.
That's good, that he confessed, Kailey Dvorak said. She's 11 and remembers Fischer, too, with affection. He was a nice, nice guy, and she never saw him act improperly, she said.
Multiple victims No information was released about Fischer's victims, except that Aquila seemed to make it clear there is more than one.
Young people in Drayton said they had heard nothing in the rumor mill.
That's what we were trying to figure out today, Olson said. Who?
I haven't a clue, Kailey Dvorak said.
He was a good priest and teacher, Dicken said. I was shocked. I didn't think he would do something like that.
'Complete surprise' Elwood Schumacher was a trustee of the parish in Drayton during the time Fischer was priest there.
I don't know anything about it, Schumacher said Friday. It came as a complete surprise to me.
There were no rumors about any improper conduct by Fischer, Schumacher said. He was a well-respected priest and, I thought, a very good priest.
John Brosseau was president of the parish council at the time.
It came as a complete surprise to all of us here in Drayton, because Father was very highly thought of, Brosseau said. He really was an exemplary priest to our knowledge. We hated to see him go.
Like most of the priests recruited into the diocese by Bishop James Sullivan, Fischer was considered on the conservative side, theologically.
He was a very traditional priest, Brosseau said. It's fair to say the story is just out today and caught everyone by surprise.
The Rev. Wil Ovsak has been pastor at St. Edward's since Fischer left in June, 2000.
He, too, had no idea of the misconduct.
I know him and he's a good friend, Ovsak said. In nearly two years here, nobody has ever said a word to me about something like this.
Criticism rare In fact, hardly a word of criticism was voiced about Fischer, which is unusual about most any priest, Ovsak said. While talking to a reporter Friday, Ovsak was interrupted more than once by parishioners concerned about the news.
He knows little about the case, neither who the victims are, or how many, Ovsak said. This came out of the blue, he said. We've got to make sure it doesn't happen again.
In it all, the gospel of Christ must be preached, Ovsak said. God does forgive even the most heinous crimes.
He admires the way Aquila has handled the situation openly, directly and quickly, Ovsak said.
Aquila promised to keep the Catholics in his diocese informed on the case, and will speak to parishioners in Drayton at Masses this weekend.
In his news release, Aquila said, I share with the Catholic people and the clergy here a lifelong love of the Church and her mission. I will not tolerate any betrayal of that trust. I will do everything in my power to ensure that our clergy, administrators, teachers and other representatives of the gospel live the Christian integrity they preach. Our families and our priests deserve no less.
Aquila urged anyone with knowledge of Fischer's misconduct - or any other priest's or employee's - to contact the diocese at (701) 235-6429.
Larger problem Fischer's admitted misconduct can be seen to be part of a larger problem in the Catholic church. Expert observers have estimated that the church has paid a total of as much as $1 billion to victims of clergy sexual misconduct over the past two decades or so.
A famous case a decade ago was that of James Porter, who as a priest sexually assaulted dozens if not hundreds of children, both male and female, including victims in the Bemidji area 30 years ago.
In recent months, the case of one former priest's abuse of dozens of children in Massachusetts has grown so that the Archdiocese of Boston has identified nearly 90 priests who have abused children over the past 40 years and church officials have been increasingly criticized for not responding correctly to the reports of abuse.
On Friday, in New Hampshire, the Diocese of Manchester named 14 priests accused of sexual misconduct with children over a quarter-century.
Fischer could face criminal and civil charges.
Although two years or more may have passed since Fischer's misconduct, the clock of statute of limitations on criminal sexual abuse of minors does not begin ticking until the alleged victim turns 18, said a Fargo attorney. The time for seeking civil damages for sexual misconduct against minors generally is six years after the offense, but that can be extended depending on the circumstances, the attorney said.
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