German Priest Accused of Abuse Taught School in US

By Sarah Karush
April 21, 2010

A German-speaking Catholic congregation and a German school in the Washington area grappled Wednesday with news that a respected priest and religion teacher has been accused of sexually abusing teenage girls decades ago.

Church and school officials in the U.S. said they were informed of the allegations against Rev. Michael Schapfel only on Tuesday. Schapfel has been removed from ministry.

Matthias Vorwerk, parish council president at the German-speaking Catholic mission, said the priest went back to Germany for Easter and had been scheduled to return last week. When he didn't return, Vorwerk said he assumed it was because of volcano-related travel disruptions.

"I'm, of course, taken by surprise and shocked," Vorwerk said. "Father Schapfel is a wonderful priest. He's done so much work in our parish and done so much good."

Vorwerk said Schapfel had helped expand the congregation and was attentive to sick parishioners. He said the priest has not responded to e-mails since leaving Washington.

The mission serves expatriates and diplomats from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and about 80 to 120 people attend Mass on a typical Sunday, Vorwerk said. Schapfel had worked there since 2004. In recent months, he had also served as pastor of a similar congregation in New York after the priest there left, Vorwerk said.

The Washington mission holds Mass in the chapel of Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda, Md. The parish house is located in McLean, Va. Police in both places said they had not received any allegations about Schapfel.

Schapfel also served as a chaplain for German military personnel in the Washington region and taught religion classes at German School Washington, D.C., in Potomac, Md. The school said he worked there beginning in the 2005-2006 school year and taught students ages 10 to 16.

"The German School Society Board and the school administration are deeply affected by these developments, and are openly cooperating with the authorities in Washington and in Germany," principal Waldemar Gries said in a statement.

The diocese in Mainz in southwestern Germany said it was informed about the abuse allegations on March 30, but an organization Schapfel is affiliated with had information for years. The diocese and the German Bishops' Conference said Tuesday that one person reported abuse to Schoenstatt Institute of Diocesan Priests as early as 2004.

Instead of informing the diocese, the Schoenstatt Institute asked the bishop of Mainz to grant him "time to reflect," citing a previous relationship between the priest and a woman, and proposed he be sent abroad.

Had officials in the diocese known of the allegations, they never would have sent him abroad, a spokesman said.

"This is not how things should be handled," Vorwerk said of the six-year delay.

But, he said, "in view of all the good things he did for us, I can't be angry."


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