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December 07, 2017 10:01 PM

Sioux Falls Priest Accused of Sexual Harassment Resigns Vatican Position

Sioux Falls, SD

A Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese priest has resigned his position at the Vatican, three months following our investigation into claims of sexual harassment against him

Our KELOLAND News investigation, "Cover-Up Concerns in the Catholic Church," revealed that after the parish secretary working for Father Justin Wachs came forward with her complaint of inappropriate touching, texts and emails, the diocese did not fire him.

Instead, Father Wachs was reassigned to the Vatican to investigate cases of sexual abuse against priests.  

Our investigation into the Sioux Falls Diocese sexual harassment case gained worldwide attention and coverage because Fr. Wachs was one of the investigators for the Vatican in the child sex abuse case against Guam Archbishop Anthony Apuron.  Fr. Wachs worked as a notary, taking the testimony from Apuron's alleged victims. 

Wachs got that job after resigning from Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Sioux Falls in 2015, a year after he was accused of sexual harassment by his secretary. 

"I did nothing wrong -- nothing," Lucia Maldonado said.

Meet Lucia Maldonado.  She worked as the parish secretary for Our Lady of Guadalupe in Sioux Falls for nearly nine years.  When we first spoke to her in June about her allegations of sexual harassment, we called her Cindy, hid her face and changed her voice because she wanted to keep her job. 

However, at the end of October, Maldonado decided to resign.

"Just working the place where the abuse happened, my memories of my abuse and my depression were getting stronger. They were stronger and stronger every day.  Just walking to the church--remembering thing that were said to me," Maldonado said.

Maldonado claims Fr. Wachs, who was her boss at the time, 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.

She tells us after our investigation, parishioners knew that she was his accuser.

"People who used to smile at me, talking to me--they just stopped looking at me and just walking away from me," Maldonado said.

However, Maldonado says in the few short months since we investigated how the diocese handled her case, she's felt empowered by the cultural shift when it comes to victims of sexual harassment and assault. 

"They need to believe us when we ask for help because it's not easy to bring everything out when you have been abused; it's not easy," Maldonado said.

Maldonado has now moved to Texas to be with family. She says if the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese would have handled her case differently, she may not have felt like she had to leave.

"It affected me in all aspects of my life--as a woman, as a worker, as a friend--emotionally, physically and all those are a long time, long-term effects. They just don't disappear. I still have everything on me--especially when you feel alone. You feel not heard by the people that were supposed to be there and protect you--when you show them the truth--everything," Maldonado said. 

While the Sioux Falls diocese refused to confirm whether Father Wachs was under pressure to leave his position, we have obtained Sioux Falls Bishop Paul Swain's letter to clergy dated November 29.  It says, "For personal and professional reasons, Fr. Justin Wachs chose on his own initiative to resign."

Bishop Swain also writes that Wachs is on leave.

Maldonado says that's not enough.

"I'm concerned that Fr. Wachs may come back as a priest. He should not be a priest. It might be a big deal for other people that he is on a leave of absence. But that doesn't change anything. I don't think I'll feel better. I don't think I'll be the same. I'm not the same person," Maldonado said.

We've been contacting the Sioux Falls Catholic diocese for more than a week and were told they could not comment at all because it was a personnel matter.  But when we told them we had a copy of the Bishop's letter to clergy confirming that Wachs had resigned his position in Rome, the diocese did issue us a statement.  While they didn't specifically address this case, the diocese says it has policies against harassment and abuse and that it encourages victims to report it.

"The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls has policies against harassment and abuse. All those who believe they have been hurt or harmed by anyone acting in any way in the name of the Church are encouraged to report their concerns to government officials and/or to the diocese. All appropriate action will be undertaken to assure a safe environment, address specific situations and encourage healing."--Daryl Thuringer, Director of Parish Services for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls

Allegations Of Sexual Harassment Against Sioux Falls Priest
How The Diocese Handled Sexual Harassment Allegations
What Happened Next To Fr. Wachs?

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