It Was Wrong of Me,' Accused Priest Says

By Denise Ford-Mitchell
Saginaw News (Michigan)
April 11, 2006

A priest removed from his post in the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw admits he was involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenager 30 years ago.

"It was wrong of me and painful to her," the Rev. Richard T. Szafranski wrote in a statement that Bishop Robert J. Carlson read at a news conference Monday.

Szafranski, 57, is on administrative leave from Zilwaukee Township's St. Matthew Catholic Church, 511 W. Cornell, while Saginaw County Prosecutor Michael D. Thomas, 58, investigates an allegation the unidentified woman made last week.

The woman's private counselor told church leaders April 8 that more than 30 years ago, in the mid-1970s when the victim was 16 or 17, she had a sexual relationship with the priest.

"I am sorry that my sins have affected (parishioners)," Szafranski wrote. "You have supported me through my health problems and in my ministry, and I thank you. I need your prayers now more than ever, and I will continue to pray for you."

Carlson said Szafranski will remain on leave pending the outcome of the prosecutor's investigation. Then church officials will decide whether Szafranski, a Bay City native, will resume his post. In the meantime, Szafranski is staying at an undisclosed "safe place" as the case moves forward.

"We're waiting for the prosecutor to wrap up his case before we get into those details," Carlson said.

Thomas said Monday he has not received a formal complaint from the victim or a report from the Saginaw Police Department.

"I haven't talked with the bishop yet," Thomas said. "But I am trying to get in contact with the victim. I don't know what the facts are at this point. Until we can talk to the person, it's not something we can discuss."

Thomas also refused to speculate on a possible statute of limitation. The Saginaw News could not reach Nate Bailey, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, for comment about any statute of limitation.

Church officials ordained Szafranski a priest in 1975 while he was a deacon at St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Carrollton Township. He also has served at St. Stephen and SS. Peter and Paul in Saginaw, St. Vincent de Paul in Bay City, St. Mary University in Mount Pleasant, St. Francis X. Cabrini in Vassar, St. Bernard in Millington and St. John the Baptist in Carrollton Township.

Carlson said sexual abuse of children is not simply a "church" problem.

"Unfortunately, it's in every facet of society," he said, "and it's a rampant problem in society. Hopefully by taking quick action, it will give us hope to continue and the courage to heal."

The woman's allegation is the first such accusation Carlson said he's received in his 14 months in office.

"My heart goes out to the victim, her family, (Father) Richard and the many people affected by this sad news," said Carlson, 61. "However, the diocese has had since 1989 the U.S. Bishop's Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth policy addressing such issues, and revived it in 2003, so we are following through with those mandates.

"Every case is unique, so it's not unusual for victims to disclose information when they come to a time when they feel comfortable and safe. If you're going to be a caregiver you have to wait it out.

"I don't know why she waited or if there are more victims. I do, however, know that we have a very elaborate training program in the diocese that teaches children and adults how to recognize child lures and why sexual abuse is wrong."

The victim's delay is not unusual, said Ellen O. Hatcher, 45, an education training coordinator for the Child Abuse and Neglect Council, 1311 N. Michigan in Saginaw.

"If they tell at all, it is much later in life," Hatcher said. "The victims are groomed in such a way to make them feel as if it is their fault. And if the person was showing any sexual acting out, people assume she asked for it, which is not true.

"Youngsters have a whole different reality that is based on the adults around them. If the perpetrator is a trusted adult, especially by the parents, the child typically feels adults are less likely to believe them over the adult. And if they don't have a strong support system, even the most assertive kids won't tell."

The woman's private counselor called Sister Janet Fulgenzi, victim assistance coordinator for the diocese, a week ago and reported the sexual misconduct, Carlson said.

Fulgenzi has met with the counselor and the woman, whom church leaders are not identifying.

There are no other allegations of misconduct in Szafranski's personnel file, Carlson said.

The Rev. John E. Hammer is the last Saginaw Diocese priest to face accusations of wrongdoing.

The Gratiot County priest told parishioners attending a closed Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Alma in April 2002 that he had engaged in "inappropriate sexual behavior" that ended "over 16 years ago" when he was in Ohio.

The revelation came after a then-33-year-old Columbus, Ohio, man began pushing then-Bishop Kenneth E. Untener to remove Hammer from the priesthood. The victim said Hammer sexually abused him repeatedly between 1980 and 1983 when he was an altar boy at St. Louis Catholic Church in Louisville, Ohio, near Canton.

Hammer - who left the ministry and state shortly thereafter - served for three years as pastor at St. Mary, which also is home to a parochial elementary school, and at Mount St. Joseph Catholic Church in nearby St. Louis. He also served from 1990 to 1992 at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Saginaw.

Saginaw Diocese officials said four priests, including Hammer, and one permanent deacon have faced accusations of wrongdoing in recent years.

Church leaders have declined to name the other men, who since have resigned or died. The diocese said that it has not made a monetary settlement in any case and has not paid or loaned money to other dioceses to help pay costs for sexual abuse claims. Sexual misconduct by Catholic priests nationwide has cost millions of dollars to settle lawsuits in recent years.

In May 2005, the Saginaw Diocese turned to child safety expert Kenneth Wooden, who lives in Shelburne, Vt., to help train its staff to lessen the opportunities for child predators and empower youngsters to quash child sexual abuse.

Priest on leave

Here's what some Saginaw Valley residents are saying about the Rev. Richard T. Szafranski's admission that he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenage girl years ago:

"I think the bishop did the right thing by having the priest out of contact with the children until the allegations are rectified." - Felisha A. Tuzas, 23, of Saginaw, surgical technician

"I certainly feel there is the presumption of innocence. I feel badly for the priest and the victim. This is devastating. It's another black mark on the church when it really doesn't need it." - Timothy M. Lynch, 55, of Saginaw Township, attorney

"I would talk to everybody and get counsel from the Vatican to see what everybody had to say about it. They have to get counsel and they have to talk about it with the people involved." - Tammy D. Hailan, 27, of Saginaw, machine operator

"I believe they will have to have all of the facts and talk to the victim. They will need to get the full report from the Vatican." - Andrew C. Salogar, 28, of Saginaw, sales representatives

"I would have to go get all of the facts and find out a little more about the allegations." - Dereke L. Bell, 38, of Saginaw, landscaper


What we knew: Bishop Robert J. Carlson said a priest was sexually involved with a teen 30 years ago.

What's new? The priest has admitted it.

What's next? The county prosecutor will investigate.


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