Skip to comments.Dallas priest challenges transfer over background checks
Posted on 04/16/2002 5:54:11 AM PDT by sinkspur
The Rev. Stephen Bierschenk has reversed his position and is now protesting his reassignment by the Diocese of Dallas from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas to a much smaller parish in McKinney. But the diocese made it clear Monday that it had no intention of changing its decision.
Members of St. Thomas Aquinas first learned of the transfer from the pulpit on Saturday and are showing support for Father Bierschenk. About 500 people took part in a candlelight vigil at the church Monday night.
The parish's priest of 13 years is being reassigned for failing to comply with the diocese's 4-year-old policy of doing background checks on church workers within a time frame established by the diocese.
Bishop Charles V. Grahmann, who was at the church to take part in the school's eighth-grade confirmation ceremony Monday night, declined to comment on Father Bierschenk's decision.
Diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard said Monday the decision to relocate Father Bierschenk was firm, but officials haven't named a successor.
"Our position is that we have zero tolerance, and we are going to enforce the safe environment program," Mr. Havard said. "This is the decision of our bishops. It's not revocable."
Father Bierschenk wrote a one-paragraph letter to Bishop Grahmann on Sunday, saying that he had changed his mind following prayer and after talking to many parishioners. He had told the congregation Saturday that he would honor the bishop's decision.
"I'm not happy with this, and I do believe it's causing a lot of harm to the community of St. Thomas," Father Bierschenk said Monday. "Bishop Grahmann specifically said I had 30 days to come under compliance, and then there would be another audit."
He said he met with Bishop Grahmann last Tuesday and was informed of the reassignment on Friday by Bishop Coadjutor Joseph Galante. He is scheduled to start May 3 at St. Michael's, whose membership is estimated to be less than a 10th of St. Thomas'.
The Rev. Carl Vogel said the McKinney congregation was looking forward to Father Bierschenk joining St. Michael's.
"We're elated over him coming. He's got youth on his side and vigor, and he's a builder. He's just A-1."
Arch McColl, an attorney with McColl and McColloch representing Father Bierschenk, said the transfer was illegal under canon law.
"When a bishop transfers a priest for punitive reasons, there has to be a trial first," he said. "He wasn't given a trial."
He said the bishop had 10 days to respond to the priest's letter before a complaint is sent to the Vatican.
Some church workers at St. Thomas Aquinas were not given criminal background checks as required by the diocese's policy to prevent sexual abuse, officials say. According to documents released by the diocese, Father Bierschenk signed a Safe Environment Status Report on Sept. 4, 2001, stating that the parish was completing criminal background checks on all employees and volunteers having significant contact with children. He also turned down an offer for assistance in implementing the program.
The diocese's sexual abuse policy was developed after the child-abuse cases involving former Dallas priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos, who was defrocked and sentenced to life in prison in 1997.
Father Bierschenk said that he first learned that St. Thomas needed to make changes on March 19 and that Bishop Grahmann gave him 30 days last Tuesday. Bishop Galante said Saturday that church leaders had intended to give Father Bierschenk 30 days to comply but decided to reassign him after learning that he had been incorrect when he told them that he thought the parish's religious education volunteers had been checked.
The on-site audit, completed March 19, said the parish business manager reported that the church implemented the Safe Environments Program in 1999. The assessment also found no documentation of criminal background checks, interviews, screening forms, reference contacts, acknowledgement forms or Safe Environment training for employees or volunteers.
Since Father Bierschenk came to St. Thomas, the pastoral staff has decreased from three assistant priests to none. He's the only priest at the 10,000-member church.
Father Bierschenk is the second pastor in the diocese reassigned within two weeks for not doing required criminal background checks. The Rev. Efren Ortega, a priest at St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff, was reassigned as pastoral associate at St. Edward's Catholic Church for not doing required background checks.
Staff writer Holly Warren contributed to this report.
A bishop can transfer a priest for any reason, or no reason. Hiding behind "Canon Law" is not going to work when the offense involved touches on the sexual abuse policy while the Catholic Church in America is on fire.
Not that I want to make any excuses for this priest, but could this perhaps be a mitigating factor? It is incomprensible that one priest could minister to 10,000 parishoners, let alone do background checks. It boggles the mind just to think of the number of baptisms, weddings and funerals, to say nothing of sick calls, confessions and counseling. How is it possible?
Thank goodness the Church has acted responsibly.
And I figured you'd side with someone who lied to "authority" and jump on that authority when it takes corrective action.
Hint: let lay people do some of the work. Steve's old school and probably doesn't any laymen handle parish money either (though I don't know that for sure).
And, while he's the only resident priest, he has help on Sundays for Mass and confessions.
From the looks of things, he didn't realize how serious the bishops of Dallas are about avoiding even the hint of sexual scandal after paying out $31 million to victims of Rudy Kos in 1997.
Did you read the stuff I bolded? Apparently, he didn't do ANY background checks. If he did, there was no evidence of them, anywhere.
St. Thomas is a wealthy parish, and there are no doubt lawyers in the parish. Arch McColl lives in Dallas, so he's likely one of them.
Why did he lie? Why does anybody lie? Who knows?
My impression is that he just didn't feel like these background checks were all that important. Like Fr. Efren Ortega, who was transferred for not checking the backgrounds of some nuns in his parish, Steve may feel that the diocese should just trust his judgement.
Defects? If I ever lied to my boss, I'd be out on the street in an hour.
That being said, St. Thomas Aquinas is one of the loveliest churches in Dallas. As a Lakewood native, I have spent many happy hours during my years there running and walking up and down Alderson Street in the evening, and I always looked forward to the corner of Alderson and Kenwood where St. T's is. Although I never participated in the Mass there, the building and grounds have a quiet, solid, almost Oxfordian dignity; they almost exude peace.
Let's all pray for the Diocese of Dallas, and the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Don't think he has to do background checks on the parishioners, just the staff, and he probably has or should have hired the staff to do that. With a congregation of 10,000 they are probably flush with funds unless they have transferred it to President Clinton and the Catholic Priest legal defense (of sexual abuse) funds.
Normally, a priest accepts reassignment by the bishop and that's that. But when he is openly accused of this kind of horrific lapse, then the whole can of worms fall out, and a priest has a right to ask for fair and just treatment.
I haven't yet seen any denial that the bishop gave him 30 days to straighten it out. The impression I get from this is that Fr. Bierschenk made a mistake but that the bishop has panicked under pressure and has made a bad situation worse.
Complicating the issue is the fact that the Bishop of Dallas, Charles Grahmann, made the 30 day offer, and the Coadjutor, Galante, decided to make the transfer after discovering that there were NO records of ANY background checks EVER being done.
I'm sure Steve's embarrassed, but he ought to just take his lumps and move on. He's not going to win this thing, especially when the bishops are erring on the side of caution.
Of course he wouldn't do background checks on parishioners, that wasn't my point. I neglected to take into account that laymen perform many of the priest's duties in the Novus Ordo churches. I am pleased that the standards are tightening and that this priest was held accountable for his inaction.
Don't count on it. I'll give odds. There will be some kind of "new dialogue" BS or some other irrelevant buck pass.
...a Cardinal MAHONY that is now saying he has a SeX Abuse Fix-it Plan just as he is being called to Rome to talk things over with the Pope.
BAD BOY, BAD BOY.
If that is the answer, it is the height of arrogance, not to mention that obedience is a part of his vocation. It is frightening to think a priest could believe he could pick and choose which rules/laws should be obeyed. What kind of example is that for the Faithful?
It appears that the pedophilia scandal is also outing other disgraces.
What I find amazing is the support he is getting from his parishioners. The background checks are for the safety of the children. It is a hassle, I know, I've been through it in order to teach Sunday School. It's also an expense, but it has to be done. I'm Presbyterian and know how difficult it is to let go of a beloved pastor, but I think the diocese needs to take a stand on this one and the parish needs to move forward.
I am also curious about the comments from the new Parish in McKinney. Aren't they a little concerned about this priest who has a record of cutting corners in this very important issue?
Popes and bishops have always been very reluctant to yield to public pressure of any kind, even in a situation like this.
I'd be very surprised if Law didn't try to talk his way out of trouble.
I'm sorry I missed his TV appearance as I am in Houston.
Attempting to go over the bishop's head is not a smart move.