Parish Makes Peace with Sins of the Father

By Jodi Wilgoren
New York Times
April 15, 2002

Each weekday before noon, the people line up outside the confessional at Holy Trinity Church in this river city's timeworn downtown, bursting with sin.

They come not just because Holy Trinity is the only church in the area to offer the sacrament of reconciliation daily. They come because behind the confessional's wooden door sits the Rev. Jean Vogler, an admitted sex addict who spent 10 months in federal prison for possession of child pornography in 1996. Knowing his sins makes it easier to share theirs.

"It's like a magnet," said Betty Plump, 58, whose two daughters and two grandchildren accompany her to Holy Trinity. "If God can forgive this terrible crime, he can forgive our gossiping or whatever we do. It gives us hope as sinners."

As priests and parishes nationwide are torn by the sex scandals swirling through the Roman Catholic Church, Father Vogler and Holy Trinity stand out for having made peace with the problem. Through the nightmare of crime and confession, what has emerged, people here say confidently, is a better man and a better ministry.

Father Vogler was able to return to a parish because he was never accused of molestation, so the victims are abstract strangers, not familiar neighbors. While child pornography is often linked with pedophilia, people here draw sharp distinctions between them and say that they have little fear for their children's safety.

Other elements distinguish the situation in this close-knit diocese of 90,000 from those plaguing Catholics across the country.

Left with little opportunity to cover up the scandal because of his arrest, Father Vogler and his superiors confronted it, with a guilty plea in court and open discussion in church. When the public objected to Father Vogler's post-prison assignment as a hospital chaplain, Evansville's bishop withdrew it and found him a new home.

Holy Trinity made sense because its dwindling membership was desperate for a leader, afraid the diocese might close its doors. Congregants at Holy Trinity, a conservative parish intensely focused on sacraments and Scripture, embraced Father Vogler's arrival as a test of their commitment to hate sin but love the sinner. Over three years, membership has swelled to 148 families from 100.

The line outside the confessional only grows.

"I have a fundamental appreciation for God's mercy," said Father Vogler, 57, who grew up, the third of seven children, in the formerly German Catholic colony of Jasper, Ind., 60 miles east of here. "People aren't proud of me because I'm a sinner, they're not proud of me being a Catholic priest who's fallen. But it's a hopeful sign to them that they don't have to give up, they don't have to believe that they're doomed or damned."

Pornography has received scant attention compared with pedophilia in the current church crisis, but it is a growing problem. Two Catholic priests, from Baltimore and St. Louis, were among the 90 people charged nationwide in the F.B.I.'s Operation Candyman sting last month.

Since the fall, a former priest working as a guidance counselor at an Albany school, a Catholic schoolteacher in Wichita, a volunteer catechist at a suburban Chicago parish and a deacon in Providence, R.I., have been arrested on charges involving child pornography.

In Nebraska, the arrest in February of the Rev. Robert Allgaier led to criticism of the Archbishop of Omaha, Elden Curtiss, who sent written rebukes, including an order to say a Hail Mary as penance, to two Catholics who spoke out about the incident in the newspaper. This month, the archbishop revised diocese policy to include removing priests accused of viewing child pornography.

The Rev. Stephen Rosetti, a psychologist and consultant to the United States Conference of Bishops' committee on child sexual abuse, said pornography was a new challenge for the church, raising the question, "Where do we draw the lines?". While he said that he believed that priests who sexually abused minors should face a "one strike and you're out policy," Mr. Rosetti said that those who succeed in therapy after using child pornography could return to ministry, as long as there was full disclosure and little contact with children.

But others disagree, pointing to the links between pornography and pedophilia. The F.B.I. said a third of those arrested in Operation Candyman, for example, admitted that they had molested minors. Critics also point out that such pornography grossly exploits children.

"Child porn is not a hobby like hunting or fishing, it's more like a pathological addiction," said David Clohessy, leader of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests. "I appreciate someone pays a debt to society -- that doesn't mean society has to be naive and gullible by putting that person back in a position to offend."

Father Vogler was the leader of Evansille's largest parish and a top aide to the bishop when the Postal Service's undercover Operation Special Delivery found dozens of lewd videotapes of children in the rectory of his Holy Rosary church in 1995. He was immediately suspended and, after pleading guilty to a felony, was sent to prison. After his release, he spent seven months in therapy.

In 1998, Evansville's bishop announced that Father Vogler would become a chaplain at St. Mary's Hospital, after psychiatrists approved his return to work as long as he did not live alone and did not work in a parish with a school. But the diocese was flooded with angry phone calls, and leaflets asking, "Who will protect our children?" appeared in hospital restrooms and the local mall.

So Father Vogler registered as a sex offender with the police department and filled in for vacationing priests around the diocese. People at Holy Trinity said they prayed he would become their pastor.

"His first line, before anything happened, he said, 'I am a public sinner,' " Carol A. Anslinger, the organist, recalled of Father Vogler's first homily. "The whole church melted. The people opened their arms up with forgiveness."

Founded in 1849, Holy Trinity was once the diocese's largest parish, but now sits in a business district, drawing downtown workers to lunchtime Mass. Members come from a dozen ZIP codes for its traditional mores: Latin in the liturgy during Holy Week, no handshake greetings in the pews, and only the priest drinks from the cup.

Father Vogler, who lives two miles away with four other priests, is, officially, the associate pastor, overseen by an administrator from another parish; his probation ended a year after his release. After running a payroll of 29 at Holy Rosary, the solo ministry at Holy Trinity, where he also changes light bulbs and writes the newsletter, is simpler -- and more satisfying.

"I had a great public image before but a miserable interior image," Father Vogler said, interrupting his tale of humiliation with hearty laughter. "What people really want is somebody who's on a spiritual journey.

"It's a daily struggle," he added. "I think this is where God wanted me to be."

Parishioners speak often of Jesus' admonition that those without sin should cast the first stone, and note that many saints were sinners first. That Father Vogler chose to return to the place of his disgrace only makes them see his recovery as more heroic.

"Our sins are private; his was public," said James Buckmaster, 43, a physician and father of eight. "And yet he stood up on the altar, and came day after day. I would never have put my foot back on the court. This is a huge man."

The embrace has inherent contradictions. Parishioners say their faith demands forgiveness, yet acknowledge that they would feel uncomfortable with a pastor who had molested a child. Nor would they want a teacher with a child pornography conviction to remain in the classroom. Several parents said they would not have their pastor baby-sit.

Even as they express unease at Father Vogler's past, there is clear relief that it was pornography and not sexual abuse.

"There weren't any children crying to their parents," said Charles Burns, 50, a postal worker who has attended Holy Trinity for a decade. "Father Jean was hurting himself, he was hurting his ministry. He wasn't hurting anyone else."

Father Vogler said he began looking at pornography in his mid-40's to compensate, he now believes, for a lack of intimacy in his life. He credits his recovery to a 12-step program for sex addicts.

When he was a boy, Father Vogler chose as his patron saint Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney, mainly because they shared the same first name. St. Jean Vianney, a 19th-century French cleric, spent up to 18 hours a day in the confessional as thousands of pilgrims trekked to his village of Ars to bare their souls.

The crowds are smaller in this humble church near the Ohio River, but the sinners come, 4, 12, 20 a day, to see Father Jean, one of their own.


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