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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Bishop Kevin Rhoades delivers his sermon during a special mass on Saturday at the St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Mass aims to soothe troubled church

Bishop calls on saint to watch over parish

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades said he found himself in a dark place after learning that for the second time in two years, a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church-Hessen Cassel had been accused of sexually abusing a minor.

“I thought: How can this happen again? How can the church do its mission when confronted by these internal problems?” Rhoades told parishioners during a Saturday evening Mass at the church on the south end of Fort Wayne.

Rhoades, bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, came to perform the Mass and show support for the church which has been caught in the swirl of two sexual abuse scandals.

The most recent one involves the Rev. Cornelius Ryan, 76. He was removed as the parish administrator June 10 after an allegation surfaced that he abused a young male 20 years ago in Uganda, where he served as a priest, church officials said. The victim’s age has not been released.

Rhoades told parishioners that Ryan, when confronted by church officials, “immediately and freely admitted the allegations made.”

Rhoades appointed Ryan to his position as parish administrator in December 2011 after his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Lombardi, was removed because of a sexual abuse allegation. The abuse by Lombardi was alleged to have taken place at his previous parish, St. Louis Catholic Church-Besancon, outside New Haven.

Rhoades said he learned of the allegation against Ryan from Father Thomas O’Hara, head of the U.S. Province of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in South Bend. O’Hara received the allegation and is investigating it because Ryan is a priest of the Holy Cross order, the bishop said.

“I know of no other parish in our diocese that has had to undergo such a difficult trial as you are undergoing,” Rhoades told members of St. Joseph Parish. “In my 8 1/2 years as a bishop, I don’t think I have ever faced a more painful situation than that which you are experiencing here.”

At the end of the well-attended Mass, Rhoades gave parents with young children a chance to leave before he addressed Ryan’s case, along with the general issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

“The church has learned the hard way this past decade that the welfare of children must not take a back seat to the reputation of the church or even the reputation of a particular priest,” he said.

Rhoades also quoted a letter that O’Hara of the Holy Cross order sent him on Thursday.

“No one wants to believe someone as beloved as Father Ryan is capable of committing sexual abuse,” O’Hara wrote, “but we also must face what now is fact, and move toward comforting and reconciling with the victim of the abuse who needs our pastoral support and prayers. Father Ryan is very remorseful and understands the actions taken by you and I are justified. He is in need of our prayers as well.”

Rhoades announced that the Rev. William Kummer will be the new parish administrator starting July 16. “He is a good and holy priest,” the bishop said.

As Rhoades concluded, he told the congregation he loved them and fought back emotion before asking the patron of the church, St. Joseph, to watch over the parish.

“It’s hard for him,” parishioner Dave Rudny said of the bishop. “It’s the second time he’s had to do this at the church.”

For Rudny, the sexual abuse that has shaken churches around the world has not shaken his faith. A longtime member of St. Joseph Parish, he once served as an altar boy. “I’ve never had a problem with the priest back when I was a kid,” the 60-year-old said.

Marilyn Sorg, 83, was shocked by what she learned at the Mass. “I just don’t know what to say, especially now that he’s admitted to this allegation,” she said of Ryan.

“It’s really hard to accept because he was such a wonderful man. My grandkids go to school here, and they just idolized him,” she said.

On Thursday, the Holy Cross order’s attorney, Dick Nussbaum, said Ryan’s accuser lives in Africa and had retained an attorney from the U.S.

Nussbaum said no litigation had been filed but declined to provide more information because a lawsuit might be forthcoming.

A national directory of Holy Cross priests says Ryan was ordained in 1966 and went to Fort Portal in Uganda in 1967, staying there until 1999. He also spent time in Kenya.

He returned to the U.S. in 2001 to stay at his order’s provincial house in South Bend. Ryan was administrator at St. Therese-Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend prior to St. Joseph parish.

aingersoll@jg.net

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