At their Dallas meeting, the bishops opted for a tough zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. They scrapped their original provision that would have let a priest with a one-time offense in the past be monitored and continue in ministry. While some applauded the bishops’ action, the reality of what it means is hitting home hard at more that a few parishes across the country that find themselves losing their priests. This story is just a sample.

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Post-Dallas: Toledo parishioners grieving, angry at loss of pastor

Toledo, Ohio

Fr. Robert J. Fisher and his small parish in Toledo’s north end are caught in the zero-tolerance chain saw that is pruning child sex abusers from the ranks of Catholic clergy across the nation.

The U.S. bishops’ tough policy came in the wake of widespread reporting on serial abuser priests like Massachusetts’ John Geoghan, who is accused of molesting more than 130 children.

But parishioners at St. Michael the Archangel Church say their pastor is no John Geoghan, and they feel Fisher’s treatment is unfair.

Fisher’s crime wasn’t a felony, and it was a one-time offense. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in 1988. The offenses were sexual imposition and contributing to the sexual abuse of a minor, a 14-year-old girl in his former parish.

Fisher served 30 days in jail. That was followed by a year of residential therapy at Villa St. John in Downingtown, Pa., and three years of outpatient care and counseling. After a gradual return to ministry, he worked part-time in the diocesan office of worship before being appointed in June 1992 to St. Michael.

There have been no new allegations in the 15 years since the first. Last month -- after 10 years as pastor of St. Michael where the parishioners knew his past and accepted him -- he was removed from ministry.

He was to meet in the next few weeks with Bishop James R. Hoffman to discuss his future. Parishioners, who also have been on hold for nearly two months, expect to get word on what’s ahead for their church community soon after the bishop’s decision on Fisher.

For some parishioners, the abruptness of the move was difficult to accept. They say they had no advance word on Fisher’s departure. He wasn’t in church May 5 when Hoffman was surprise celebrant at the Sunday liturgy. The bishop read a brief statement before Mass saying Fisher had been put on administrative leave. After Mass Hoffman answered questions for about 20 minutes.

In his statement, Hoffman said that Fisher’s departure was not based on new allegations. Rather, Hoffman said he took his action, “in view of a past event and the media climate presently in the United States.” He said he hoped that after the bishops’ meeting in Dallas he would have “some clear direction in guiding Fr. Fisher’s priestly ministry.”

Parishioner Tony King expressed a common reaction. “If he has done nothing wrong since [his conviction in 1988], why remove him? I believe if you do the crime, you do the time. He did that, and more.”

Fisher presided at King’s wedding four years ago, and also baptized him.

King’s wife, Barb, 41, is a lifelong parishioner who juggles several ministries. She’s a eucharistic minister, a home and hospital visitor and a member of the finance committee.

“People are angry about Fr. Fisher’s removal,” she told NCR. “I think they were sad the bishop didn’t come and talk to us ahead of time. … I think he should have told us, and let Father celebrate Mass with us.”

Some say they don’t see why action against Fisher couldn’t have waited until after the Dallas meeting nearly six weeks later. Announcement of his removal came during the parish’s three-day festival and cast a pall over the celebration, which was one of Fisher’s initiatives.

“This is one of the poorest parts of Toledo, but every year on the first weekend of May the neighborhood lights up with a Ferris wheel, and there’s activity for the kids. [Fisher] brought a lot of energy into the parish, and he helped revitalize the neighborhood,” said Scott Woods, who grew up in the parish and was active in numerous programs there.

Woods, 21, is now president of the Catholic Student Association at the University of Toledo. He is also the youth representative on the diocesan pastoral advisory council. Woods says he wouldn’t be a leader in campus ministry, with a passion for liturgy, if not for his work with Fisher.

One thing that bothers him about Fisher’s removal is that “we have no sense of double jeopardy, or more importantly, forgiveness from a Christian viewpoint. He has certainly paid his dues to society.”

It’s unclear how widespread the knowledge of Fisher’s past was when he arrived at St. Michael in 1992. Some parishioners say a few knew but didn’t talk about it. Others say Fisher was very open with them from the start. But Woods says there was no ignorance of the matter after May 1993 when the Toledo daily newspaper, The Blade, ran a series titled “Stray Shepherds: The problem of clergy sex abuse,” and interviewed Fisher for a story.

Minnie Campbell said the parish was told about Fisher’s past before and when he arrived, both by the bishop and by Fisher himself. “Nobody’s perfect,” she said. “If God can forgive us, why can’t we forgive others?”

For Campbell, Fisher’s removal is like losing a family member. She’s been in the parish 40 years and her husband, Tyrone, attended the now-merged parish school, as did their eight children. Fisher officiated at the marriages of four of the children. He also baptized the Campbells’ six grandchildren.

“Fr. Fisher has done miracles for my family,” Campbell said. “Two of my children were out of the church, and he brought them back. Baptisms and conversions have increased since he came, plus he started a children’s liturgy.”

One son, Joe, 42, said Fisher got him back into the parish’s life at a time when he had drifted from the church. “My life was going OK, but I was missing that spiritual part,” he said. “I talked to Father Bob and he helped me get back into it.” Joe Campbell is now a lector and plays electric bass in the parish guitar band.

“We have forgiven Father Bob a long time ago,” he said. “We love him. He’s our pastor and we want him back.”

With Fisher gone, Woods’ main concern is for pastoral care in the parish and what its leadership model will be. Sue Ross, administrative assistant for 15 years, is the lone paid staff member besides the pastor, he said, and the workers, though dedicated are all volunteers.

“Fr. Fisher was truly the leader. Who now? It’s one thing to have a chaplain, another to have a pastor,” Woods said.

Fr. Nicholas Weibl, the diocese’s vicar for priests and deacons, is in charge of assigning priests to cover St. Michael’s liturgy, but so far he’s been there himself most Sundays, with help from Bishop Robert Donnelly, the sole auxiliary in the 19-county diocese. Singing at Mass “is still in place but at the same time it’s a sad time,” Weibl said, as the diocese copes with one fewer among its 270 priests. “The people miss Fr. Fisher, and they’re also unsure of what will go on. … They’re like a rudderless ship, waiting for someone to get hold of it again and get it straightened.”

Ross, who has lost her boss as well as her pastor, said she thinks the bishops’ policy “was necessary for those who are true pedophiles. But this isn’t a pedophile issue, so it went too far for some. [Fisher] was already punished. It would be better to have been handled on a case-by-case review.”

In a letter to parishioners two weeks after his departure, Fisher wrote that being away “feels like a death. But with death comes new life.”

He went on to express confidence that parishioners would rise to the occasion and that “each of you will do whatever is necessary to keep our parish strong and vibrant and very responsive to our ministry in my absence.”

Although there is anger among both laity and priests alike over Fisher’s removal, the priests in general are supportive of Hoffman, knowing the bishops’ Dallas decision has put many leaders of dioceses between a rock and a hard place in terms of removing one-time offenders.

“He’s a man of great integrity and we know that he finds himself in an excruciating dilemma,” said Fr. Martin Donnelly, co-chair of a consortium of 11 parishes --including St. Michael’s -- serving Toledo’s central city. “[Hoffman] will be faithful to the conference on the one hand, and on the other he has deep concern for Bob Fisher and wants to treat him fairly. It pains the priests to see him caught on the horns of such a painful dilemma.

“Likewise, in my view, the priests of the diocese are fully in support of Bob Fisher’s claim to ministry as a priest of the diocese. So we’re all swinging slowly in the breeze.”

Tom Kelly is a freelance writer in Toledo. He is a former staff writer/photographer for the Catholic Chronicle, the diocesan newspaper.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002