Monday, May 20, 2002

'After pastor' to help parish heal

Retired priest deals with fallout from sex scandal

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DAYTON, Ohio — Catholic church officials knew they had to move fast three weeks ago when a sexual abuse scandal forced out the pastor of Queen of Martyrs parish. They needed a new pastor who could work well with stunned and angry parishioners, someone who could manage a church budget while helping to heal a wounded congregation. The first call they made was to the Rev. William Schwartz.

        Father Schwartz, who had replaced a disgraced priest once before, has a reputation as the kind of pastor who can step in on short notice and lead a parish in turmoil.

        He is part of a small but growing group of priests, known as “after pastors,” who are called upon to restore trust in parishes devastated by sex scandals.

        They are the Catholic church's version of corporate America's “turnaround specialist,” an executive-for-hire brought in to fix a serious prob lem.

        Some of them, like the 73-year-old Father Schwartz, are retired priests who volunteer for the job. Others are younger priests pressed into emergency service.

        Whatever their background, they all have one thing in common: They are having a very busy year. With sex scandals erupting almost daily across the country, the need for pastors like Father Schwartz is greater than ever.

        The job is challenging and at times painful, but experts and church officials say these interim pastors may hold the key to recovery for hundreds of suffering congregations.

        “It's a very difficult job,” said Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “They are faced with the problem of ministering to a parish that is usually not only hurt, but angry.”
       One of the first lessons interim pastors learn is that the damage inflicted by their predecessors reaches far beyond the children they molested.

        The entire parish — from Sunday school teachers to Bingo night volunteers — suffers when a pastor betrays the trust of those he serves.

        “It's very traumatic,” said Dr. Mark Laaser, co-editor of the book Restoring the Soul of a Church: Healing Congregations Wounded by Clergy Sexual Misconduct.

        “The entire congregation is, in a way, victimized. It can be very divisive if the congregation doesn't handle it openly and well.”

        The main job of the “after pastor” is to hold the congregation together while helping parishioners repair the spiritual and emotional damage.

        That's no easy task, however, when parishioners are reluctant to put their trust in a new pastor so soon after they were let down by the old one.

        “It stacks the deck against the new guy, that's for sure,” said Kevin Freiberger, a member of the pastoral council at Queen of Martyrs. “When you have something like this happen, and you have the next guy come in, everybody is going to look at him sideways.”

        The problem is compounded when the parish blames the new pastor's bosses — the bishops and archbishops — for failing to catch the abusive priest sooner.

        That was the reaction among many at Queen of Martyrs last month when the former pastor, the Rev. Thomas Hopp, left suddenly amid abuse allegations. Church officials said Father Hopp admitted fondling a teen-ager at another parish in the 1980s.

        “It creates anger, sorrow and disappointment,” Father Schwartz said. “It's like a death in the family.”

        Father Schwartz first experienced that emotional intensity when he stepped in as interim pastor last year at Queen of Peace Church in Butler County.

        The previous pastor at Queen of Peace, the Rev. Ken Schoettmer, was forced out after admitting he had sexual contact with three minors in the mid-1980s.

        Although parishioners there were shocked and upset by the revelations, the reaction a year later among the 500 families at Queen of Martyrs was even stronger. Father Schwartz said the national church scandals may have made the Dayton parish especially sensitive.

        “When you have all this outside stuff, it rubs the wound,” Father Schwartz said.

        The wound was raw when he arrived at the end of April. His first week on the job was rough.

        Father Schwartz was introduced to the parish on the same day the archdiocese announced that Father Hopp had been accused of abuse. His first Sunday sermon featured a public apology to the victim from Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk.

        The next day, Father Schwartz sat through a church meeting packed with angry and disappointed parishioners.

        The new pastor's strategy to repair the damage was relatively simple. He scheduled a series of meetings to talk about the issue and told parishioners to seek him out if additional questions came up later.

        He also encouraged them to continue to work together on the more mundane problems facing the parish, such as the search for a new principal at the church's grade school.

        “When people do routine things, it helps,” Father Schwartz said.

Blessing in disguise?

        He was encouraged last week when an hour-long parish council meeting ended without anyone bringing up Father Hopp or the abuse allegations.

        But he knows the recovery is far from complete. And he knows that the permanent pastor who replaces him later this year may have to finish the job.

        Dr. Laaser said the task often takes a toll on the “after pastors.” While researching his book, Dr. Laaser tracked the careers of 11 Minnesota pastors who took over for disgraced priests and ministers.

        He found that eight of them eventually left the ministry because the experience was “so contentious, angry and difficult.”

        It is so difficult that some Queen of Martyrs parishioners compare the impact of the sex scandal to the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        Just as the attacks shocked and angered the nation, the abuse revelations shocked and angered parishioners, changing the way they viewed their small, safe religious community.

        Some parishioners find hope in the Sept. 11 analogy.

        “Something like this brings people closer together,” said parishioner Bill Loftus. “It may end up being a blessing in disguise.”

        He said that spirit of cooperation should help make Father Schwartz's stint as pastor a success, and it should pave the way for the arrival of his permanent replacement in a few months.

        “These folks will work to make the new pastor feel at home,” Mr. Loftus said.

        Father Schwartz is sure they will.

        “These are good, loyal people,” he said. “I have no fear for the future of the parish.”

        March shows Catholic pride

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