The day John Schmitz burned his Roman Catholic collar was a turning point in his life.
Raised in St. Peter and a graduate of St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary, Schmitz was firmly rooted in the Catholicism that ran through what is known as the Holyland in northeastern Fond du Lac County.
But after almost a decade serving as a priest, including five years at St. Mary’s Church in Fond du Lac, he said he had enough and could no longer stand in front of a congregation and preach something he did not believe.
“I knew then there were pedophiles, priests who were being shuffled from one place to another,” said Schmitz, who has authored a book “A Funny Thing Happened on My Way Out of Church.”
Alleged abuse in Fond du Lac
More than 40 years later Schmitz is studying the manner in which these cases were handled. The recent release of documents from both the Catholic Milwaukee Archdiocese and the Capuchin Franciscan Order, which operates St. Lawrence, detail decades of sexual abuse by priests.
“I have met a number of men (victims) whose lives are marked with alcoholism, broken marriages, suicides and, as one writer put it, ‘death of the soul,’” Schmitz said. “I guess what hurts the most is I knew many of these priests.”
While serving in Fond du Lac, Schmitz was made aware of alleged abuses by Donald Peters, who served as a priest at St. Patrick’s Church from 1962-67 and again from 1969-1971. Peters is on the list released by the Archdiocese and was charged with taking graphic photos of teenage boys while serving in parishes in Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties.
“A teacher and principal from (St. Patrick’s) school came to me with the information and I went to (former) Archbishop (William) Cousins and was told the bishop would take care of it and not mention it to the parents or authorities,” Schmitz said. “Instead, the teacher was fired and the principal’s contract was not renewed.”
Schmitz, who eventually married and lost his wife to cancer, recently published his latest book, “Vocation,” about his training as a young seminarian. He points out that it’s important to remember that 90 percent of priests are strong religious leaders and good role models, but the pervasive nature of the cover-up stains the goodness of the religion.
“The problem is, unless there is substantial change there isn’t going to be a return to credibility,” he said.
'Hope and strength'
Sr. Joann Sambs, General Superior of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Agnes in Fond du Lac, called details of the documents “painful, human darkness.” She says it’s time to face reality and be strong advocates for the victims.
Sambs has worked with some of the priests on the list of substantiated offenders and has known victims of sexual abuse. She says she is well aware of how abuse affects victims for the rest of their lives.
“Such reports reflect a dark shadow on the light of the church and my hope is that we try to remain strong through it,” Sambs said. “Our faith is much bigger, routed in tradition, God and the mission of Jesus. That’s what gives me hope and strength and peace in the midst of this darkness.”
Human development is needed to build healthy relationships, Sambs said, and the church needs to look at the formation of those that enter into a religious life. She believes non-celibacy and allowing priests to marry is not necessarily the answer.
“Do we have holy, happy and healthy men and women who are ready to serve the church? How are they prepared and trained at all levels — physically, mentally and spiritually — and how do they interiorize their call to God?” she asked.
Sambs said the sisters continue to pray for healing for all involved and to find ways to prevent abuse in the future.
Pain on both sides
“The last few days have been very difficult for Catholic priests,” said Father Pat Heppe, who led Fond du Lac Catholics for years within the Holy Family Community, which boasts a membership more than 14,000. Heppe now serves as Vicar for Clergy at the Archdiocese.
He talked of pain on both sides. He described that endured by victims as “horrific,” and spoke of the shame and embarrassment of priests for the actions and sins of a few priests. He said the suffering “brings us to our knees in prayer for all involved.”
“Most priests have experience walking with and offering spiritual guidance to those who have been abused,” Heppe said. “Since 85 percent of all abuse occurs in the context of the family, we actually had some experience when those who have endured this travesty have come forward.”
This knowledge does not make things any easier, Heppe stressed, especially when “brother priests” have put innocent people through pain.
“I’m told that the release of these documents, although many years old, offers healing to victims insofar as now others know the terrible pain they have carried for so many years,” he said. “That thought of assistance in healing does give me some consolation, but shame and embarrassment is still very present to all of us.”
Openness, Heppe said, is importanat.
“We’ve learned a lot from our mistakes and the Catholic Church is making the problem known and helping to curb the problem through the education of parents and families to the issues. I hope this can help stop this in our world — in our time,” Heppe said.
Faith remains cornerstone
Father Luke Strand, who also served at Holy Family for a brief time and is now Vocation Director at the Archdiocese, offered a short message of hope.
“As you can imagine, this has been a very difficult time. We can never say that we are sorry enough,” Strand said. “As a Church, we will continue to spread the good news of Jesus, for we are the Church and we are constantly seeking reconciliation and healing.”
Heppe affirmed that the cornerstone to build upon remains Christian faith.
“The mission of the church is the mission of Jesus and the Gospel,” he said. “That’s No. 1 and — despite our sinfulness, which we must admit — we can’t lose sight of our focus and mission. I’m hoping that in surviving this crisis we will become a better and more compassionate church.”
Sharon Roznik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-7936.