Parish Finds Peace As Abuse Case Ends Priests Praised for Helping Healing; Process

By Kathryn Rogers
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
August 14, 1992

Our Lady Queen of Peace parish has almost healed. Just two weeks after the former pastor, the Rev. Donald H. Heck, was sentenced to four years in prison for molesting an altar boy, members of the parish in House Springs speak with pride about the way their congregation grew closer together as it coped with the incident and the resulting publicity. They also recall with gratitude the love they have received from the two parish priests - Joe Kempf and Norb Ernst - since the news of Heck's assault broke nine months ago. "The parish has settled down," Kempf says. "It's been about a year, and I think there's a trust here. We're doing very well as a parish. Through all of this I knew in my heart of hearts that God was in us and that's why we would be OK." But the healing has been painful at times, the priests and parishioners indicated in recent interviews. Parents tell of fearing that their own children also had been assaulted. Others questioned the honor traditionally accorded the priesthoo d, and the trust they had placed in the church to always handle problems satisfactorily. "This was a devastating thing," said JoAnn Corbett, a member of the parish council. "It was the more so because a priest is in a position of trust. "When we heard the news of the child abuse, there was surprise, anger, and there were a number of people who didn't believe it." Heck, 57, had been the parish pastor for only about eight months when he announced from the pulpit on Oct. 28, 1990, that he was taking a leave of absence because of "stress." He had not been a popular priest, several parishioners said, but his announcement came as a surprise. Only a few days before, the archdiocese had been notified that a boy had accused Heck of assault, but the allegation was not generally known in the parish. That case was never prosecuted but apparently was the impetus for Heck's removal from the parish and admission to a treatment center, authorities said. But on Oct. 26, before he left House Springs, Heck held down a boy and fondled him in the sacristy of the church, authorities said. The incident was not brought to the archdiocese's attention until March 1991, after Heck was in treatment at St. Michael's Center in St. Louis County. The archdiocese reported the allegation to the state child abuse hot line; the case then went to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. St. Michael's Center evaluated Heck for pedophilia, and he was found to be of no danger to others, the archdiocese said. Heck was arrested in December, when he was an assistant pastor at St. Andrew Church in Lemay. In June, he pleaded no contest to the sex abuse charges. Gary Gronborg, who was parish council president when Heck was pastor, said he felt betrayed. "I was angry because the trust that we place in our priests had been violated," Gronborg said. He said that after Heck left, parishioners pulled together to try to help out Kempf, who as associate pastor was the only priest in the parish. "He went through a lot," Gronborg said. "He was by himself and carrying the burden of the parish." Kempf said that Heck's leaving was the second such sudden departure in the parish within the year. The former parish pastor, the Rev. Hugh Creason, whom Heck had replaced, also had gone suddenly. Creason had been ill, but gave no explanation for his departure, Kempf said. After Heck left, some parishioners - who had not heard about the abuse accusation - started wondering if the parish was to blame. About three months after Heck left, Ernst was assigned to the parish as its pastor, and the parishioners took to him immediately. The parish, which serves about 800 families, was starting to develop a strong sense of community under the ministry of Ernst and Kempf when Heck's arrest hit the news. The two priests never shied from talking about the case. "We believe in open communication," Ernst said. He sent parishioners a copy of a letter he had been sent by Archbishop John L. May explaining the archdiocese's actions in the case. Ernst and Kempf acknowledged in their sermons the shock people must feel that a priest could be involved in such an attack. They specifically addressed the children, telling them about "good touch and bad touch." The archdiocese sent counselors from Catholic Services for Children and Youth to meet with parents and with staff members at the parish school. The counselors distributed brochures aimed at helping the detection of child abuse. Corbett and John Hussman, also a parish council member, said that the counselors really came too late. "I think people were thinking they should have been told" immediately after the first allegation against Heck and a counselor sent right away, to determine if any other children had been hurt, Corbett said. Several parishioners recalled the embarrassment they felt when the news of the arrest broke. Kempf could identify with their discomfort. He said that a few days after the arrest, he went to a store to buy his mother a Christmas present and the sales clerk, noting that he was a priest, asked where his parish was. "I said, 'Uh . . . er . . . not in St. Louis!' " Kempf said. "I was afraid she would think bad of me and of all of us." Kempf later told the story during Mass, so parishioners would know he understood their embarrassment. "But I told them that after thinking about it, I decided I didn't have anything to be embarrassed about. This is a good place. I'm grateful to be here." After the beginning of the year, the parish began holding "renewal weekends" where members met at the church for all-day sessions to discuss spiritual matters and problems. The Heck case was a popular topic, parishioners said. But Kempf and Ernst helped the participants open up and were sympathetic to what people expressed, said Bill Johnson, a member of the parish. "I felt very comfortable, and we felt we could trust our priests," he said. "This really brought us together as a group."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.