A Sioux Falls woman says she was sexually harassed while on the job. Her boss? A priest.
While she reported his behavior to leadership in 2014, she now takes issue with the way the Sioux Falls Catholic Diocese handled it.
As this investigation unfolds, you may be surprised by what happened to this priest as well.
In the Roman Catholic religion, priests are viewed as a direct line of communication to God.
A church employee, whom we are calling “Cindy,” agreed to come forward to talk about her allegations of sexual harassment against Fr. Justin Wachs on the condition we don’t show her face and have someone else say her words.
“I respect all the priests,” Cindy said. “I respect them because I know they are working for God to help people, to find salvation and hope in our lives.”
Fr. Wachs was her boss. Their working relationship seemed normal, until one day he came to her and said: “I’m not worthy of nothing. I am nothing,” according to Cindy.
“And I was surprised to hear that from him because I saw him as a very smart person and he was the right hand of the Bishop at that time and it makes me feel kind of sad that he was saying that. And I said, ‘Father, you are smart. You are the right hand of the Bishop. Your family is proud of you and you’re helping a lot of people,’ and then he started crying,” Cindy said.
So Cindy gave him a hug to comfort him. But after that, she says Fr. Wachs began asking for a hug every morning and at the end of their work day.
“The first weeks I was okay with that, but then, I started noticing that he wanted more and more. When I went home I was thinking and praying because I was starting to feel uncomfortable. And I was praying, ‘God, help me to not think bad things about Father Wachs because he is a priest, he is your son and he is serving you.’ But I started feeling more uncomfortable and more and more and more and more,” Cindy said.
Cindy says Fr. Wachs began holding her hand during mass and prayers.
“He sat very close to me, leg to leg and held my hand,” Cindy said.
Cindy says then Fr. Wachs insisted they eat lunch together every day.
Cindy: So when I walked to take my seat for lunch, he rubbed my back. Another time when we were making quesadillas, he rubbed his hand all the way from my neck to down my waist.
Angela Kennecke: So he touched you?
Cindy: A few times. A lot of times, yes. Even when we were at the office, he put his hand on my leg and another time he went to reach something and I was here and he came right here, very close to my face, so if I moved, our faces would be together.
Cindy says Fr. Wachs began spending more time near her desk and calling her “Cara” or “Dear One” in Italian. She says she asked him to stop touching her more than once.
“When he was holding my hand, I tried to take my hand from him and he said, ‘No, It’s okay.’ I said to him, ‘I don’t want you to touch me anymore.’ But he looked at a picture of Jesus alone and he said, ‘Look at that picture. He’s alone and I feel alone. And you help me not to be alone.’ But I said, ‘I don’t want you to hug me anymore.’ He did not respond, or anything,” Cindy said.
“As the time passed, I was getting more uncomfortable, very nervous. When I was going to work and when I was at home because he text me a lot,” Cindy said.
Sending her messages like these, when he was traveling in Rome:
“I miss you a lot,” Fr. Wachs texts Cindy.
“I need you by my side more than ever,” he texts.
“Forgive me for everything,” Fr. Wachs also texts Cindy.
Finally, Cindy confided in a coworker about what was happening.
“I cried a lot. And the other person who were with me helped me to pray. But like I’ve said, it was painful to go to work because I knew I had to go to lunch. I knew I had to hug him. He was going to be in my office a lot and that made me uncomfortable,” Cindy said.
Then Cindy went to the Human Resources Department in the Sioux Falls Diocese for help.
Cindy: The first thing I said to them is, ‘I want to protect the church.’
Kennecke: You wanted to protect the church. What do you mean by that?
Cindy: What I mean by that is every time a scandal comes to the Catholic Church, everyone points at the church. And that’s not the church; it’s the people who do the wrong thing.
After she reported the problem, Human Resources met with Fr. Wachs and he sent Cindy this letter. In it Fr. Wachs calls her “the flower most dear to me.” He goes on to write, “I don’t know what I can do now. I am going and I will try to disappear, because I don’t want to do more damage to this flower nor to kill it. I will die first.”
Fr. Wachs also sent Cindy an email where he said, “I tried only and always to put you first and to help you and support you, really to love you as a father and brother.”
A few days later, Human Resources asked Cindy to meet with Fr. Wachs and Matt Althoff, the Sioux Falls Diocese chancellor who is responsible for handling complaints like these.
Cindy: Trying to figure out a way to have a healthy working relationship.
Kennecke: And did you accept that?
Cindy: I have to listen. And I was confused at that time. I was scared, I was nervous and I had to listen to them.
Because she was nervous, Cindy secretly recorded the meeting on her phone. In it you can hear Althoff go over the tenets laid out in a confidential diocese memo obtained by KELOLAND Investigates.
“We’re going to do everything we can possible to make certain there’s a professional physical boundary between us when we speak to one another in the office,” Althoff said in the meeting.
The memo also calls for communication outside of working hours to be for emergencies only, lunches will be voluntary and professional relationships will be maintained by respecting proper names.
Toward the end of that meeting you can hear Fr. Wachs apologizing.
“I’m so sorry,” Fr. Wachs said.
But Cindy says that after that meeting, instead of her working relationship with the priest getting better, it got worse.
Coming up in part two, we will continue our investigation into what happened after Cindy reported the alleged harassment to the diocese and show you what happened with Fr. Wachs.
KELOLAND News has reached out to Father Wachs and he responded to us through his attorney. His attorney tells us Father Wachs disputed the accusations, but agreed to the established professional boundaries.
Full statements are below.
Bishop Paul Swain did not dispute the allegations, and did agree to sit down and talk with us about the matter.
Kennecke: What can you tell us about how that case was handled and those allegations?
Swain: This is a personnel matter which requires confidentiality and discretion because there are people involved; many different types of people. It isn’t that I don’t want to talk about it, I do want to talk about it because there is a lot missing and misinformation of what has been presented so far. But I can’t talk about it because I’m morally required to maintain confidentiality.
Hear what the Bishop Paul Swain told us about his decisions and what leadership in the church told Cindy when we continue our investigation Wednesday night at 10 p.m.
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] 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