UPDATE: Former Granger priest removed from public ministry, credibly accused of ‘serious boundary violations’ against woman

Published: Jan. 2, 2022 at 11:21 PM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WNDU) - A priest in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend has been removed from public ministry after he allegedly had serious boundary violations against a woman.

Rev. Eric Burgener had served at St. Pius X in Granger but most recently was at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne.

In a letter to St. Vincent parishioners this past weekend, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades announced the following: “I must inform you that the diocese received credible allegations against Father Eric Burgener of serious boundary violations with an adult. This necessitated that his faculties to perform public priestly ministry be removed. He has also been removed as parochial vicar of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, Fort Wayne, and as hospital chaplain. Please pray for all involved. Knowing this is very difficult and painful news to receive, please let’s pray for one another, for our church and most especially for all of those who are directly involved.”

Having faculties removed means Burgener is unable to perform sacramental ministries, such as celebrating Mass, baptisms, or hearing confessions.

The parishioner letter dated January 1st is posted on the church website.

Rev. Daniel Scheidt, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Fort Wayne, wrote on December 5th, a young woman, accompanied by two friends, shared with him the allegations against Burgener, who was an associate pastor at St. Vincent’s. In the parish letter, Scheidt indicates he immediately shared the accusations with proper Church authorities in order to start a formal investigation.

“In this meeting and subsequent ones, I have been deeply impressed with this young woman’s love of the Lord and the Church (including her respect for and trust of Priests), as well as her immense courage in sharing such excruciatingly painful experiences. Through this whole process, I have consistently found her claims to be both serious and credible,” wrote Scheidt.

He goes on to say: “My anger---and I have been filled with it every hour of every day and night for the past four weeks---unceasingly takes the form of Christ’s passionate commitment to spend myself entirely at the service of the growth of health and holiness in the families of our Church and in the ministry of our Priests and training of our seminarians.

“...When I met with Fr. Eric last week, he was particularly anguished about how your faith would be wounded in this tragedy. I assured him that the Lord would keep safe whatever good He has worked through any of our ministries---it is ultimately Christ who loves us in His sacraments, and His love is stronger than sin or death.”

On Monday, WNDU received the following statement from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend:

“On December 6, 2021, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend received credible allegations against Father Eric Burgener of serious boundary violations with an adult. This necessitated that his faculties to perform public priestly ministry be removed. He has also been removed as parochial vicar of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, Fort Wayne, and as hospital chaplain.

With this very difficult and painful news, we ask for prayer for one another, our church, our diocese, and most especially, all of those who are directly involved.”

On January 13th, the diocesan victim assistance coordinator as well as the vicar for clergy will give a presentation at St. Vincent de Paul. Rev. Daniel Scheidt said the talk will cover available support for Church abuse victims; the process for investigating allegations; as well as the current resources for and the formation of diocesan priests.

Right now, it is unclear if criminal charges will be filed against Burgener.

Two FWSB diocesan priests credibly accused in recent months

Burgener becomes the second Fort Wayne-South Bend diocesan priest to be credibly accused in the last four months.

David Huneck resigned from his pastoral duties in September following sexual misconduct accusations. Huneck is now expected to plead guilty to charges of child seduction and sexual battery for allegedly inviting two young women, ages 19 and 17, to his home and giving them alcohol before assaulting them.

“The Church wants the general public and the faith community to know the intermediate truth, the ‘show a little compassion for the the victims.’ They do not want the public to know the ultimate truth,” commented Michael McDonnell, communications manager for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Praising the young woman for coming forward, McDonnell still questioned the timing of the diocese announcing Burgener’s removal from public ministry, considering local church officials allegedly learned of the “serious boundary violations” in early December.

“It is to no surprise to [SNAP] that they waited until after the Christmas services were over because it’s - it’s a huge money factor for them. I hate to bring that up,” McDonnell said.

Money collections regularly happen during weekend Masses in the Catholic Church.

“Until the Church, and I’m speaking specifically of the Catholic Church, cleans up the wreckage of their past, they will not have a path to move forth freely,” added McDonnell.

“What has happened is just tragic”: Seminary where Burgener studied responds

16 News Now spoke by phone with Msgr. Andrew Baker, S.T.D, seminary rector of Mount St. Mary’s University, where many of the men training to become priests for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend go through the “formation process” - the journey of discerning their possible priestly vocation to becoming ordained Catholic priests.

Baker confirmed Burgener studied at the Mount St. Mary’s seminary.

“I’m very, very upset and saddened by this and especially for the people that experienced that kind of either harassment, abuse, or, or were involved in a priest going beyond proper boundaries, and those that are scandalized by it. It’s wrong. And we need to deal with it in an upright and transparent fashion, which is being done, and I’m grateful that - that, that it’s being addressed,” said Baker.

16 News Now asked Baker about the psychological examination that postulants - men early in the formation process - must undergo in order to be accepted in the diocese’s formation program.

“When a man applies to the seminary, it’s his diocese that has a psychological assessment done. When he applies [to Mount St. Mary’s], we review that assessment that had been done on him,” Baker explained.

Baker said the psychological evaluation is “fairly intense” and entails men being asked about their psychosexual development and how they relate to others.

Seminary rector outlines what’s being taught to future priests, areas to “drill down on”

Baker said he’s already discussing with formation faculty about how to continue to address issues that could hinder a future priest’s ability to serve. Currently, Baker believes the seminary is strong in instructing men on how to live the vow of celibacy well, particularly as it pertains to relating with other men, women, and people of all ages.

However, he finds two areas that seminary faculty “need to drill down on”: complete transparency and learning how to live alone.

During their time in formation, each seminarian continually meets with an assigned spiritual director (spiritual counselor) as well as a formation advisor where the men are encouraged to be honest about any issues they are experiencing.

“One of the issues could be that if a seminarian does not do that, and something is below-the-surface, if you will, or some struggle that is happening, and we’re certainly willing to help him with it, but if we don’t know about it, we can’t help him, you know, with it,” Baker said.

Each week, Baker said either he or a spiritual director gives a talk to the seminarians, some of which cover setting and abiding by healthy relational boundaries. Additionally, all Mount St. Mary’s seminarians go through what is called the “celibacy seminar,” instruction on establishing boundaries and giving concrete examples of those.

“The other issue that has, that continues to be an issue for us - and we have reflected on as both faculty - and, and we need to continue to help our men deal with is just dealing with the normal problem, if you will, of isolation,” Baker shared.

By that, he means showing priests-in-training how to cope with living by themselves when they are assigned to serve parishes after ordination.

“...but also how to deal with those moments that are really testing him emotionally,” added Baker. “Those are the couple of things that we’re really working on and continue to try to work on with our seminarians in the formation process.”

Recognizing red flags, SNAP suggestions for change

McDonnell, with SNAP, says a person could be seeking spiritual counseling from a priest or lay minister when they start to become “groomed,” a deliberate yet gradually subtle process of building trust in order to gain access to someone.

“It’s frightening when we hear the news, that the individual providing that counseling has weaponized the faith and has crossed the line. And once you cross the line, you can never go back,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell listed the following signs of boundary violations by church authority figures: intensely personal questions, too personal of touches, being asked to spend extra time together outside a church setting, being told there will be consequences for sharing conversations with others.

“These types of therapeutic sessions should be open, honest, transparent, and an individual seeking counseling should feel free to be able to talk about whatever he or she feels that they need to talk about,” he added.

As for psychologically evaluating men interested in the priesthood, McDonnell wants assessments to be more comprehensive.

“I believe that the evaluation needs to go deeper into the sexual experience of the individual, their background, whether it’s their own personal interests, their own personal desire. Have they dated? And if they have dated, did they date someone of the same sex or the opposite sex? What was their preference when they dated?” he raised. “I think that these types of discussions need to be brought forth out into the open. This way, that’s going to show the honesty and the willingness of the individual who is interested in ministry to be able to be completely transparent about his and or her past preferences.”

Copyright 2022 WNDU. All rights reserved.