FORT WAYNE – A priest at Fort Wayne's St. Joseph Catholic Church-Hessen Cassel has been removed from his post after an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.
Diocesan officials confirmed Tuesday that the Rev. Thomas C. Lombardi, 62, had been relieved from his duties at the 150-year-old parish.
Parishioners said an announcement was made at weekend Masses. A copy of the letter provided by the diocese to The Journal Gazette said the abuse of an unnamed minor was "said to have taken place some years ago at another parish."
The parish was not named.
But in the letter, the Rev. Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic Diocese, wrote that the church's "commitment to the safety of our children and young people" required the priest's removal.
The action was taken after the diocese "promptly and thoroughly" conducted "a preliminary investigation," Rhoades' letter said.
"In accord with the norms of the church and diocesan policy, I have withdrawn Father Lombardi from exercising his ministry as a pastor, pending the outcome of canonical process required in these cases," Rhoades wrote.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests on Wednesday criticized the diocese for not releasing information about when and where the alleged abuse took place.
In a statement, Barbara Dorris, SNAP outreach director, called on Rhoades to visit all parishes and urge others to report what they saw.
“Silience is a predator’s best weapon, and by (the diocese's) not coming forward with all the details, victims who may be suffering in silence may continue to feel alone and helpless,” she said.
Before coming to St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel, Lombardi served at St. Louis Besancon parish in New Haven from 1986 to 1997, according to an online parish history, and at St. Joseph in Garrett in the early 2000s.
He was transferred to associate pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mishawaka by then-Bishop William E. McManus in 1984, after having been on the faculty and principal of Huntington Catholic High School beginning around 1977. The school was closed in 1985, two weeks after the Rev. John M. D'Arcy took over as bishop. He also served at St. Mary's in Huntington.
Lombardi was ordained in 1975, according to the 2011 diocesan directory.
Vince LaBarbera, diocesan spokesman, said he did not know where Lombardi has been living since his removal. Telephone calls to St. Joseph's rectory Monday and Tuesday were answered by an answering machine.
LaBarbera referred questions about Lombardi's status to Monsignor Robert C. Schulte, diocesan vicar general and rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne.
Schulte said Lombardi had been assigned to "a residence" other than in the parish but was not at liberty to say where. He said the person alleging abuse had requested confidentiality, so he could not provide further details.
He said the allegation was reported to local law enforcement even though that is not required by diocesan policy or state law because the alleged victim is no longer a minor.
Consequences for the priest, Schulte said, could range from reinstatement – if the allegations are determined unfounded – to a limited ministry that would not include parish work or public Mass, or removal from the priesthood by the pope.
"We're still in midst of gathering information but if it's ascertained that this is a case of a minor being mistreated by a priest, that automatically has to be referred to the Vatican by the bishop with his recommendation as to what should be done," Schulte said.
Parishioners said they were shocked at the announcement.
"I know it was a shock. It was a very big shock to us," said church member Tim Schall of Hoagland, who believes Lombardi had been at the church for five or six years.
"He was a very nice person who was always there for you. I really liked the guy. He was just a tremendous guy to me," he said.
Member Judy Sorg of Fort Wayne also expressed disbelief. She said some church members were so upset at the announcement before the homily at Mass that they could scarcely continue.
"None of us believe it," she said. "We love our priest. We're hoping it's not real."
Sorg said she has been a member of St. Joseph-Hessen Cassel for 52 years. She called it an active parish of about 400 families with a preschool and school of about 130 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
"Father (Lombardi) was so good at getting people together. He's been so good at teaching Bible classes and classes about the new Mass and things like that," she said. "He made the remark when he first came that he was here to help people get to heaven, and that's how we feel about him."
The bishop's letter encouraged any parishioner who had been a victim as a minor of sexual abuse by someone in church service to tell diocesan officials, regardless of when the event took place. Schulte said reports could be made to his office or to Mary Glowaski, diocesan victim assistance coordinator.
Rhoades, who expressed "much sadness" in the letter, wrote that the church remains "committed to healing and reconciliation with victims/survivors of sexual abuse."