Bishop Asks 2 Priests for Resignations

By Deena Winter and Virginia Grantier
Bismarck Tribune (North Dakota)
March 25, 2002

Two western North Dakota priests have resigned from active ministry at the request of the bishop of the Bismarck Diocese because of 'substantiated allegations of sexual molestation of minors which took place many years ago.'

Bishop Paul Zipfel, through his attorney, released a statement to the Tribune Sunday in which he said he accepted the resignations of the Rev. Steve Zastoupil, 66, who served as pastor of the Church of Corpus Christi in Bismarck, and the Rev. Norman Dukart, who served at the Church of St. Patrick in Crosby and the Mission of St. Luke in Noonan.

'Apologies are vitally necessary, but of themselves are insufficient,' Zipfel said in the statement. 'My goal as bishop is to do all that is humanly possible to prevent sexual abuse by anyone serving the diocese. We will continue to revise our policy on sexual misconduct as neccesary to ensure that this goal is attained.'

Zastoupil's attorney, Al Wolf, said Zastoupil was asked Wednesday by Zipfel to resign because of indiscretions that occurred 31 years ago involving two children.

Wolf said Zastoupil received years of counseling beyond what was required, reconciled with the families and victims and actually discontinued counseling when Zipfel determined it was no longer necessary about five years ago. So although Zastoupil signed the resignation Wednesday, it was not because he felt he couldn't function as a pastor but because his boss was asking him to and because it was indicated that a zero-tolerance policy was now the official position of the church.

Wolf said when Zastoupil found out that zero-tolerance wasn't yet the official church policy, but only a policy that was being adopted diocese by diocese, Zastoupil on Friday asked for the withdrawal of his resignation, but didn't get a response to that request.

An interim priest has been named and was announced by Zipfel after he informed congregations of the situation Sunday.

Wolf, a longtime member of Corpus Christi, said he feels sick emotionally about the situation, that he and his family love 'Father Steve,' his daughters grew up around him, and he still has confidence in him.

He said it's his understanding that there have been no new complaints against Zastoupil and thinks if this had to have been done it would have been better to arrange an early retirement for Zastoupil, who has been ill lately anyway under the strain of overseeing the construction of a new church.

Tom Bair, whose Mandan law firm represents the Bismarck diocese, said both of the cases of sexual misconduct took place many years ago, and both of the priests admitted to the transgressions.

'Some of these allegations are decades old,' Bair said.

He would not comment on the number of victims involved, saying, 'I just don't want to get into any specifics. There's been substantiated allegations.'

The bishop has removed the two priests' 'sacramental faculties,' meaning they are still priests and can still say Mass privately.

Bair said the diocese has been aware of the cases for many years, and the cases were handled according to diocesan policy at the time, but Zipfel has since strengthened the diocese's policy. He said Zipfel was prompted to change his diocese's policy after attending the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in Washington a couple weeks ago.

'It's a highly recommended course of action,' Bair said.

There is no national policy as to how dioceses should respond to cases of sexual misconduct, but many dioceses nationwide are adopting a 'zero tolerance' policy in which priests are not allowed to serve in active ministry if there is a substantiated allegation of sexual molestation of a minor. Zipfel has decided that is how the Bismarck diocese should respond, too.

'The bishop's taking a stand,' Bair said.

Bair said the bishop is not aware of any other priests 'serving in active ministry' in the Bismarck diocese who have substantiated allegations of molestation against them. If any others are substantiated, Bair said, 'The bishop will take action. There's no question.'

When such claims are made, the diocese does an internal investigation that involves talking to the alleged victim, the priest and an assessment by a review board.

Bair said he was not aware of any lawsuits in connection with the two cases, then or now.

Zastoupil has served as pastor of Corpus Christi for 24 years. It serves 1,500 families. Bair said the sexual misconduct by Zastoupil occurred at a previous assignment, but he would not say where.

The Rev. Tom Kramer, the vicar general of the diocese, traveled to Crosby and Noonan this weekend to inform the congregations of the resignations, and Bishop Zipfel informed Corpus Christi parishioners during all four of the church's masses this weekend. He held meetings with the parishioners, and they were allowed to make statements.

Bair said Corpus Christi reacted with 'strong feelings.'

'I think it was evident at the meetings that the parishioners at Corpus Christi loved Father Steve a lot,' he said, and added that many parishioners thanked the bishop 'for his courage and (for) being there with them this weekend.'

He said the cases were reported to the state Department of Human Services, as required by a state law passed in 1991.

Bair's law firm has represented the diocese for a number of years, and Bair said the diocese has had complaints of sexual molestation against priests 'from time to time.' He said the diocese has entered into settlements with individuals, but he would not comment on them, saying most of the agreements included confidentiality clauses.

He would not say how many such settlements have been made by the diocese, or how much money has been paid out.

'We don't keep a running tally,' he said.

He said all of the allegations he's aware of occurred many years ago.

As for Zastoupil and Dukart, he could not say where they were or what would happen to them.

'I don't know what their plans are,' he said.


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