Parish Copes in Priest's Absence
Wooster Church Members Can Ask Diocese Questions Concerning Rev. Mueller's Suspension

By Colette M. Jenkins
Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio)
July 27, 2002

Carol Weber is struggling with what to tell her 6-year-old granddaughter about "Father John" when the little girl comes for a visit this weekend.

"I know she is going to ask where he is and I can't lie to her," said Weber, a parishioner at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Wooster. "I can't tell her he's on vacation. I don't know exactly what to say, except that he's gone."

On July 4, "Father John" -- the Rev. John J. Mueller -- was placed on administrative leave along with two other priests in the Diocese of Cleveland for allegations of misconduct with minors. No details of the allegations were released.

The news of Mueller's suspension left the parish of about 1,500 families in shock.

At 7 p.m. Tuesday, diocesan representatives -- Sister Mary Rita Harwood, secretary for parish life and development, and the Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, personnel director -- will meet with parishioners in an effort to answer some of their questions and help them deal with the absence of their pastor.

"Our goals are to join the people in prayer for healing within the parish community, Father Mueller and the victims of sexual abuse," Jurcak said. "We want to discuss the charter for dealing with allegations of abuse to help them understand the mind-set of the diocese and to respond to their needs."

While many parishioners are still in disbelief, the shock has given way to sadness and anger.

"The people here are very supportive of Father John -- even people beyond in the greater community because he was so active," said Jacquelynn Lee, pastoral minister at St. Mary. "Many people are outraged for Father John's sake. They want to know what his position is in the diocese and they are struggling with how this could happen to our parish and our Father John."

Lee said parishioners know that at the upcoming meeting they won't get the answers to some of their most burning questions: what the details of the allegation are and whether Mueller will return to the parish.

What parishioners have heard are stories that the accusation against Mueller dates back 40 years and involves a then 16-year-old girl whom he was counseling in Cleveland and that the girl has made allegations against four or five other priests.

Diocesan officials have said details of allegations cannot be released while the diocese is under subpoena by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office, which is investigating sexual-abuse allegations against priests.

However, Jurcak would confirm that the recent allegation against Mueller dates to 1962.

Mueller is one of 15 priests placed on leave by the diocese for allegations of misconduct with minors. Diocesan officials have said the fate of these priests won't be determined until the Vatican makes a decision on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was adopted last month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and until Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla receives the recommendations of a commission reviewing the diocese's sexual-abuse policy.

Marilyn Sharp, a member of St. Mary's for about seven years, said she understands why Mueller had to be placed on leave until the allegation against him is resolved. But parishioners want to know if the process could have been fairer.

"I know that policy requires them to put him on leave," Sharp said, "but I think it is so grossly unfair. It's all being done without any discussion or question... It seems so unfair that he would be removed without being able to defend himself."

Diocesan policy requires that priests be immediately removed from active ministry when an allegation is made.

Mueller was suspended eight months before his planned retirement as pastor of St. Mary's on March 3, his 70th birthday.

Jurcak said Pilla had already approved the retirement and that the announcement had been made to the parish.

"What does all this do to his retirement plans?" asked Weber. "Why didn't he get a chance to say goodbye? How are we supposed to explain this to the children, who love him so dearly?

"In my heart I know he's innocent and I want to know if he will be allowed to come back when they find that out."


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