Sioux Falls, SD
Our Eye on KELOLAND Investigation has uncovered allegations of sexual harassment in a Sioux Falls parish against its priest.
The alleged incidents happened back in 2014. We've brought you the story from the victim's point-of-view, who told us what happened and that her job was threatened for continuing to push the matter. We agreed to keep her identity hidden and change her name and voice.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
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CLICK HERE to watch Part Two
"And when Matt (Althoff) said to me, that I will lose my job if I say another report and when Twila said, 'This is not good for you. Maybe you should look for another job,' it hurt me very badly because I went in there so they could help me. And it looks like they wanted to get rid of me," Cindy said.
Months after she reported it and the diocese first tried to save the working relationship and establish professional boundaries between Cindy and Fr. Justin Wachs, Fr. Wachs resigned from the parish and went on medical leave.
But it's what happened next that caused someone to threaten the diocese with going public with the matter, which they eventually did.
The Sioux Falls diocese told KELOLAND News that anonymous person who alerted KELOLAND Investigates to this incident is trying to hurt the church. The writer didn't agree with Fr. Wachs' "reassignment." Fr. Wachs' spoke to us only through his attorney who says his new assignment was in the works before he was accused of sexual harassment. Read the full statement from Wachs' attorney at the bottom of this story.
After resigning from his parish and going on medical leave, Fr. Wachs was reassigned to the Vatican where he works in the office that deals with sexual abuse cases in the church. He can be seen investigating a sex abuse case in Guam
earlier this year. Angela Kennecke:
Can you tell me if he was recommended for the job or if he was called up by Rome? Bishop Paul Swain:
That's a personnel matter, too. I'm sorry, but let me just say that assignments of priests is a very important part and whenever an assignment is made, I try to look at what are the needs of the church and what are the needs of the parishes and what are the gifts and needs of the priests who are being assigned.
In a memo to clergy from Bishop Swain, dated on May 22, 2015, obtained by KELOLAND Investigates, the Bishop tells priests in the diocese that Fr. Wachs was requested by a Cardinal in Rome to serve at the Vatican.
Bishop Swain writes, "after prayerful consideration and consultation, I have agreed to release Reverend Justin M. Wachs, J.C.D., for service in the Congregation at the Vatican," but that "Father Wachs will of course remain a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls." Bishop Swain also writes, "I am grateful to Father Wachs for his service in the Diocesan Curia."
But after Fr. Wachs' reassignment, an anonymous letter was sent out to leadership in the diocese and 16 priests. In that letter, the writer accuses the diocese of a cover up and the Bishop of not handling the situation correctly because of his close relationship with Fr. Wachs. Wachs lived at the Bishop's home during much of his tenure in Sioux Falls. Kennecke:
Can you talk at all about your relationship with Fr. Wachs. Were you good friends with him? Swain:
Again that's a personnel matter. Kennecke:
But he lived here? Swain:
Yes. He served as my priest secretary, in the early days of my time here. Kennecke:
Would you have any reason to protect him from anything? Swain:
No! Good grief, what you're suggesting is I'm going to compromise my own morality, my sense of right and wrong for something that seems rather beast to me. Of course not. That's why I'd like to talk about this a little more because I really... There's some stuff I'd like to get out, but I can't because it's important to protect the general policy.
Meanwhile, after the church got the anonymous letter calling for Father Wachs to come back from Rome and get psychological treatment, Althoff met once again with Cindy in April of this year to ask her if he could let the priests, who got the anonymous letter threatening to expose the issue, know she was okay. Again, she secretly recorded their conversation on her cell phone.
"Father Wachs is no longer the pastor. He doesn't even live on this continent. And the church has offered you counseling. It's offered you encouragement," Althoff said in a recording. Kennecke:
Matt Althoff said in that recording, "He's on a different continent; he's not even here anymore." Did that take care of the problem? Cindy:
No. Because I still hurt, I still have those memories and I struggle to be okay.
"You might remember Bishop, did issue, you know, offered you an apology and acknowledged that he didn't handle that very well," Althoff said in a recording. "And I can tell you he tells me this regularly. He apologizes to me and he says 'I didn't handle this the right way.'" Kennecke:
You feel you've dealt with it as best you could? Swain:
Absolutely. In part because we had an outside look at what we did and the result in all major things... Obviously anyone looking back, there's some process things you wish you would have done a little differently. But in terms of the actual, handing of the result, I'm very comfortable with what we did. Others will disagree with that. Certainly, with someone, but I can accept that. I did the best I can, with a clear conscience
Bishop Swain says the letters threatening to make this case public are what trouble him most about all of it. Swain:
Sometimes you have to bear a cross that is even unfair, but you do it for the greater good. Kennecke:
This is your cross? Swain:
Well someone else can interpret that. I think we all have crosses that come our way that we have to live with. The cross isn't about how I handled anything--the cross is the attack mentality that is not just on me, but on everyone. Kennecke:
Does it undermine your ability and moral authority to lead the diocese of Sioux Falls? Swain:
It certainly doesn't with me. My conscious is clear. What others may interpret it, I can't have any control over that.
Instead of driving Cindy away from the church, she says this experience has brought her closer than ever to God.
"If this becomes public, they will point to the church, meaning God; no--it's the people who work for the church. It's the people who have power and they didn't do the right thing. In this case, I believe Bishop Swain didn't do what he was supposed to do," Cindy said.
Cindy tells us the diocese has paid nearly $2,000 for co-pays on her counseling and medical bills.
We provided the Diocese Cindy's recordings of her conversations used in this story with Chancellor Althoff for its response. The diocese response is at the bottom of this story. Father Wachs' attorney told KELOLAND Investigates in an email that, "To say 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."
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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