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Pastor calls for ‘fresh start in leadership’ for Catholic archdiocese over sex abuse cases

Father Bill Deziel cited “the apparent lack of good judgment and common sense on the part of our archdiocesan leaders to deal with the offending priests.”

The pastor of a large, conservative North St. Paul Catholic parish has called for “a fresh start in leadership” in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in the wake of recent revelations about the scope and severity of sex abuses cases here.

Fr. Bill Deziel

“These accounts of priest abuse, and misconduct are disturbing, yet even more disturbing to many of the faithful is the apparent lack of good judgment and common sense on the part of our archdiocesan leaders to deal with the offending priests,” Father Bill Deziel wrote Sunday in the parish weekly bulletin (PDF).

“Things can’t seem to be more twisted and out of hand,” he added. “It leaves us all crying foul and I share the frustration and outrage that many of you have expressed.”

The archdiocese, asked about Deziel’s comments, said it was unable to comment immediately on the matter.

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Deziel also did not immediately respond to an interview request from MinnPost, but several parishioners at the Church of St. Peter said they applauded the strongly worded letter and sermons in which the abuse scandal was also mentioned.

“All I can say is I think he hit the nail on the head,” said Bill Sonntag, a member of both St. Peter and St. Pius in White Bear Lake. “I feel an absolute sadness that he has that this is going on.”

Pastor calls for release of list

Deziel also called for the release of the list of 33 priests the archdiocese believes have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. “If it is not, it leaves all of us wondering who these men are, and which priests may be threats to our children and young people,” he wrote. “Other dioceses including Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson and Baltimore have done this and it’s time for us to do so as well.”

The pastor also asked for the opening of a “vault” in the chancery offices that contains files on priests. “All of the files should be examined by competent independent authorities who can make decisions as to which files contain potentially criminal behavior and which do not,” Deziel wrote. “The findings of this investigation should be made public and charges filed if necessary.”

Acknowledging that he was calling for “dramatic” steps, Deziel cautioned that without fundamental change the archdiocese might be considered “downright bankrupt” for years.

“Third,” he wrote, “it may be time for a do over with our archdiocesan leadership. This is not to say that our leaders have not done their best to serve us in these matters and others. They have served admirably in many powerful ways, but when things get this bad, sometimes a fresh start is needed for all involved. A fresh start in leadership could get us moving forward again with all that Christ calls us to do.”

“I’m glad he said something — it’s the elephant in the room,” said parishioner Sonntag. “There are definitely more empty pews and I think it’s because people lose faith in [church] leadership and they stop going.”

Range of reactions

Sonntag was one of two parish members who said they feel terrible for clergy who are not involved in the scandal but who likely feel tarnished nonetheless.

“It’s got to be hard to be a man of the cloth with this going on,” said Marv Koppen, another parish member. “The vast majority are really good people.”

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Not every parishioner agrees with the pastor’s comments. One man who asked not to be named because of the issue’s divisive nature, said, “I think he went a little too far. No one was overly upset, but it was definitely a topic of discussion after mass.”

Like many, he waited until after services to share his thoughts with Deziel. He was concerned, he said in an interview Monday, that some of the allegations circulating in recent news accounts may be inflated or exaggerated. He said he knew one of the accused and doubts the claims.

Since the weekend, Deziel’s comments have gone viral among Catholics who have been critical of the archdiocese’s policies in a number of arenas. Several who contacted MinnPost were careful to point out that while Deziel’s reputation is that of a middle-of-the-road straight shooter, St. Peter is generally regarded as a conservative parish.

The church’s website still contains a Marriage and Family Committee page urging the faithful to vote in favor of the proposed 2012 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Audio of an appearance by University of St. Thomas law professor Teresa Collett, who spoke widely in favor of the amendment, is still available.

“I think it’s wonderful that he spoke up,” said Bob Duetel, a member of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform. “I think it’s pretty bold. I hope more of his brother priests speak up.”

The missive makes Deziel the second priest in the archdiocese to call for Archbishop John Nienstedt’s resignation. The first, the controversial and outspoken Michael Tegeder, called for Nienstedt to step down last year during the church’s campaign in favor of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.