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June 27, 2017 10:08 PM

How The Diocese Handled Sexual Harassment Allegations

Sioux Falls, SD

The Catholic Church has been plagued by sex abuse cases, but there's another issue that comes up, that while it's not the same, it is related.

Priests across the county have also been accused of sexual harassment.  We had one such case right here in KELOLAND in 2014, but you never heard about it until now because it was kept under wraps by the diocese.

KELOLAND News has been looking into this story that the diocese doesn't want you to hear for our KELOLAND News investigation into what happened after the alleged harassment was reported. 

The church employee who says she was sexually harassed for two years beginning in 2014 by the priest she worked for has come forward to tell her story. We agreed to keep her identity hidden and change her name and voice. You heard from her in the first part of this story.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: CLICK HERE to watch Part One

She told us Fr. Justin Wachs, her boss, frequently contacted her for personal issues after work hours, used terms of endearment for her, demanded hugs from her, invaded her personal space, touched her frequently and insisted she hold his hand.

"One time I told him, 'What do you want? You want me to stop coming to church. I don't want people to say bad things about me; and you're a priest.'  And I even said that, 'You're holding my hand. If Bishop Swain was coming right now, would you still hold my hand?' And he said, 'No.'" 

Cindy reported the harassment to the diocese. In the fall of 2014, Matt Althoff, the diocese chancellor who is responsible for handling complaints like these, met with Cindy and Fr. Wachs to discuss rules for how they can continue to work together.

Cindy secretly recorded that meeting on her phone and you can hear Father Wachs' apology. 

"I'm so sorry," Fr. Wachs said in the recording. 

In an email to KELOLAND News, Father Wachs' attorney says the priest disputed the accusations, but agreed to reestablish professional boundaries. 

Read the full statement at the bottom of this story. 

Only after that meeting, things didn't go as Cindy had hoped.  

Angela Kennecke: How did it get worse?  
Cindy: It got worse, because the next day, Father said to me, "Now I'm being accused and I did nothing wrong."  And I said, "Why didn't you say that when we had that meeting yesterday?"  And he said, "Because it wasn't the right moment."  
Kennecke: Was he angry? 
Cindy: Yes, he was angry.

Cindy says Fr. Wachs then accused her of making mistakes on the job. So she called Twila Roman at Human Resources.  

Cindy: I told her all the things he was doing and she said, "Maybe it's not too healthy for you to be working there; maybe you should look for another job."
Kennecke: So Human Resources told you to look for another job? 
Cindy: "Yeah and I said, "I have done nothing wrong to leave my job." And she said, "So you want to work with Fr. Wachs?"  And I said, "Yes, but he has to work as he is supposed to do; as a boss--not trying to make me feel like I do nothing and accuse me of things."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, is a national organization that helps victims of abuse is critical of how the church handles cases like Cindy's.

Barbara Dorris is the victims managing director at SNAP. She says sexual harassment is a legal issue and thinks the church should react by saying: 

"'We hope you will contact civil authorities,' and step out of it. They aren't trained to investigate these types of situations. They are trained in spiritual matters," Dorris said. 

While that didn't happen in this case, Cindy decided to write a formal account of what had happened and sent her eight-page letter to the priest council.  

She says she sent the letter to the priests on the council because she wanted them to do something more than what Human Resources had done to remedy the situation.  

"They're supposed to help Father Wachs because he needs help; that's why. They're here to help. They need to know," Cindy said. 

After the priest council got her letter, Matt Althoff and Diocese Attorney Dan Fritz called for a meeting with Cindy, which she also secretly recorded on her phone. 

"You are the victim of sexual harassment," Althoff said in the recording.  "And you are the victim of somebody that crossed professional boundaries." 

"And Matt said to me if I sent another report, I lose my job," Cindy said. 

"Let me tell you… I don't like to be threatening. But because it's an employee situation. I think now that we have this established arrangement or understanding, you need to understand (Cindy) that that complicates the church's ability to employ you if you disobey that. If you continue to send things out," Althoff said in the recording.  

"I have done nothing wrong to not be working there. And I love my job and I need my job," Cindy said. 

Kennecke: Could someone's job be threatened for reporting something?  
Bishop of the Sioux Falls Diocese Paul Swain: Absolutely not. Absolutely not--it's prohibited both in terms of our policy, but also in terms of what's right.

Swain agreed to talk with us in general terms about church policies, not specifics of this particular case because he says it's a personnel matter. 

Kennecke: So you would not condone anybody within the diocese threatening someone's (job)...
Swain: Oh, absolutely not.
Kennecke: ...job for coming forward.. right?

Back to that meeting, after Cindy wrote her account of what had happened, Althoff told her that her role wasn't to say what happened to Fr. Wachs.  

"I deal with more victims of clergy abuse than I care to admit. But the discipline of the rule that we have is a black line. We focus on how (Cindy) is going to get better and I don't talk to you about what's going on with father," Althoff said in a recording. "I'm going to encourage you to do all that you can to trust in the church and trust in God that Father Wachs is going to get the help he's gonna need."  
 
Less than a month later, according to a church bulletin: Fr. Wachs resigned from his church and went on medical leave.  

Cindy tried to put the issue behind her, but had trouble doing so. 

"I wasn't sleeping well. I was having bad dreams. I was thinking, 'What is going to happen if I die today. Where am I going to go?  Because I was against a priest.'  But I was telling the truth," Cindy said.  

Three months after she first reported the sexual harassment, in early 2015, Cindy was offered a meeting with Bishop Swain. 

Cindy: I told the Bishop everything.
Kennecke: What did the Bishop say to you?
Cindy: He said, "Sorry."
Kennecke: The Bishop told you he was sorry?
Cindy: Yep, nothing else. He was quiet. 

Kennecke: What is expected of a priest?  What are those ethical standards? 
Swain: The standards of Jesus Christ, to treat others with respect and dignity and to care for one another as Christ has loved us. I'm not exactly sure what you want me to say, other than we expect appropriate behavior by all priests, all employees of the church, all lay people who act in the name of the church.

Fr. Wachs' attorney tells KELOLAND News in an email that, "with the Bishop's encouragement and acceptance, Father Wachs decided that it was best for the parish he resign. Therefore to say that the matter was not handled immediately and properly and that there was no ramification for Father Wachs as a result of the accusations is simply not true."  

Read the full statement from Wachs' attorney below. 

However, an anonymous letter sent to members of leadership in the diocese and later to KELOLAND Investigates threatened to expose the matter.  The writer takes issue of what happened next with Fr. Wachs.  

We continue our investigation Thursday night with a look at how Fr. Wachs got his new job, what his responsibilities entail and whether his close friendship with the Bishop had anything to do with it.  

Wachs Statement Through Attorney: 

As a result of the reception of the accusation, the Bishop, and thereby the Diocese, properly intervened immediately.  Both parties were heard in an initial investigation.  While Father Wachs disputed the accusations, both parties agreed to conciliation with the assistance of the Diocese.  Parameters were agreed to for the reestablishment of proper, professional boundaries.  Eventually, Father Wachs resigned as pastor of the parish of [Redacted], which was a difficult decision for him to make.  With the Bishop's encouragement and acceptance, Father Wachs decided that it was best for the parish that he resign. Therefore, to say that the matter was not handled immediately and properly and that there was no ramification for Father Wachs as a result of the accusations is simply not true.

With regard to the notion of a promotion, the request of the Holy See for Father Wachs to serve in Rome at the Vatican was received in April of 2014, well before the accusation was brought forward to the Diocese.  To say that the Bishop's decision to release Father Wachs for service at the Vatican was a result of the accusation or that it was viewed as a promotion is also simply not true.

- Eric R. Kerkvliet, Lynn, Jackson, Shultz & Lebrun, P.C.   

Sioux Falls Diocese Statement Regarding Althoff Interview

The story you are pursuing is the product of unfounded and inaccurate allegations made against Bishop Swain and the Diocese.  Bishop Swain and the Diocese cannot fairly respond to these allegations because they have been made anonymously and because the details of the allegations cannot be revealed from our end as they are part of confidential personnel files.  Now you have presented us with recordings made under cover by an employee of [Redacted] Parish of her conversations with Matt Althoff and Fr. Wachs.  The recordings that you provided, in addition to having been made without the knowledge of the parties to the conversations, are heavily edited and you have denied us access to the entire recordings.

We made Bishop Swain available to discuss generally how allegations of this type are handled but that will be the extent of our response to anonymous, unfounded attacks and under cover and incomplete recordings.

- Daryl Thuringer, ‎Director of Parish Services Delegate for Discipleship and Evangelization, ‎Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls

 


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