Des Moines Diocese puts priest on leave

By Grant Rodgers
Des Moines Register
July 1, 2014

A Warren County Catholic priest has been put on administrative leave and faces removal from the priesthood after a church committee found "credible" evidence he sexually abused a minor.

Church officials with the Diocese of Greater Des Moines are keeping secret details of the reported abuse by the Rev. Howard Fitzgerald, 62, including the victim's age, gender, and when and where the abuse is alleged to have occurred. The reported abuse happened "decades ago," the diocese said in a prepared statement.

Fitzgerald is the fifth priest in the Des Moines Diocese to face being defrocked for sexual misconduct since 2003. That year, a diocese committee found evidence of sexual abuse by three priests: John Ryan, Albert Wilwerding and Richard Wagner.

In 2007, Phillip Hobt, a priest and former teacher at St. Albert Catholic Schools in Council Bluffs, was removed from the priesthood after an incident of sexual abuse in a Chicago suburb. Nationally, scandals involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests have rocked parishes in cities across the country, including Boston, Louisville, Ky., and Providence, R.I.

In Iowa, the scandal forced the Diocese of Davenport to file for bankruptcy in 2006. A $37 million settlement called for payments to 160 victims of abuse by priests.

The request to keep details of the latest incident secret came from the alleged victim, said Anne Marie Cox, a spokeswoman for the diocese. That stance, however, was rebuked by the director of an advocacy group for abuse survivors who said transparency would help determine whether Fitzgerald may have abused others.

"Time and time again, we've seen Catholic officials withhold information claiming to be concerned for a victim when, in fact, the rationality is much more self-serving," said David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a nonprofit support group. "Specificity prods more parents and siblings to ask their loved ones, 'Hey, did you see or suffer or suspect some of those crimes?' "

The diocese contacted law enforcement when the abuse was reported, the statement said. However, Iowa court records indicate Fitzgerald has not been charged with a sex crime in the state.

Fitzgerald served at a number of churches in central and southwest Iowa over his career, including in Urbandale, Altoona and at St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs. Last fall, Fitzgerald began serving as a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Indianola and Immaculate Conception Church in St. Marys, as well as at Simpson College.

Putting Fitzgerald on indefinite administrative leave means he will not be able to serve as a priest in public. Fitzgerald has also been asked by Bishop Richard Pates to stop wearing clerical garb.

During his time at the Indianola church, there were rumors that Fitzgerald made "inappropriate comments" to teens that "raised red flags," said Elizabeth Williams, a 20-year member of the parish. Williams said that her interactions with Fitzgerald on church committees were positive and that he appeared to be well-meaning, but she's glad to see him on leave if there's evidence of abuse, she said.

"I'm certainly glad the Catholic Church is being proactive," she said. "I don't want him to continue if he has this tendency."

Fitzgerald last spoke at a Mass a few weeks ago and told parishoners that he'd be leaving to go on a retreat, Williams said. Two days later, a letter was read from Pates telling parishoners about the sexual abuse complaint, she said.

Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment Monday.

The diocese's allegation review committee in June delivered its report to Pates that found evidence of sexual abuse by Fitzgerald, Chairwoman Kathleen Kilnoski said. The diocese used an outside investigator to look into the complaint, and Fitzgerald was given the opportunity to speak to the committee, she said.

Kilnoski became aware of the complaint in April. She said the committee met "several times" in June to discuss the issue. Pates apologized to the victim, who has received services from the diocesan victim assistance advocate, Sherry Knox.

"It is a top priority that we address all credible allegations of sexual abuse in the manner outlined by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," Pates said in the statement. "In addition, the diocese continues to do all it can to ensure we create a safe environment for children and all vulnerable individuals in our churches and schools."

Pates was traveling Monday on church business in El Salvador and was unable to speak with a reporter.

where fitzgerald has served

Church officials announced Monday that the Rev. Howard Fitzgerald has been placed on administrative leave because of "credible" evidence of sexual abuse. Fitzgerald has served at the following places:

• July 1978 — St. Albert High School, Council Bluffs

• July 1983 —St. Pius X Church, Urbandale

• July 1984 — Pastoral team serving St. Mary, Panama; St. Mary, Portsmouth;

St. Boniface, Westphalia

• July 1986 — St. Peter and St. Francis Worship Center, Council Bluffs

• July 1990 — Holy Spirit, Creston; St. Edward, Afton

• September 1995 — St. Patrick, Dunlap; Sacred Heart, Woodbine

• July 1998 — St. Michael, Harlan

• July 2001 — Ss. John & Paul, Altoona

• January 2010 — St. Joseph, Earling; St. Peter, Defiance

• July 2010 — St. Patrick, Dunlap; Holy Family, Mondamin; Sacred Heart, Woodbine

• July 2011 — Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, Glenwood

• November 2013 — St. Thomas Aquinas, Indianola; Immaculate Conception, St. Marys



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