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Transfer of priest won't go through

E-mails fly after word that man with arrest history would arrive

Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2002

After outcry from concerned Catholics, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has rethought plans to assign a priest who has a history of being arrested for homosexual conduct with adults to a Hartford church.

Had his transfer to St. Kilian parish gone through, it would have marked the third time Father Thomas Walker was sent into a situation where Catholics who described themselves and their parish as traditional or orthodox had challenged the closing of their parish.

Former Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland had approved the first two assignments.

The priest's latest reassignment would have occurred under the watch of newly installed Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who is more traditional in many devotional and theological matters than the liberal Weakland was.

Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba decided this summer that Walker was suitable for reassignment, said archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski. The nine-member College of Consultors, priests who advise the archbishop, made that recommendation, he added.

At the time, Dolan had not yet been installed as the new archbishop. Sklba was serving as administrator of the archdiocese because Weakland had retired amid news reports that the archdiocese had paid $450,000 in 1998 to a man who claimed Weakland had sexually assaulted him nearly 20 years earlier.

It was not clear Friday if Dolan was aware of plans to reassign Walker to St. Kilian, but merger opponents said information about Walker's background was handed to Dolan during one of his public appearances in October.

E-mail messages and telephone calls began rippling through parts of the archdiocese earlier this week after people learned of the priest's impending transfer in a bulletin announcement at Nativity of the Lord Parish in Cudahy.

"I have to say I was really shocked and disappointed that they would send a man out here who's been in that kind of trouble," said Paul Quick, 79, a lifelong member of St. Kilian whose grandparents and parents are buried in the church's old cemetery.

"I believe that our parish and our community here deserves better than this . . . What we need out here is an experienced pastor who's interested in our parish and school."

No announcement was made at St. Kilian. The announcement in Nativity's bulletin said simply that Walker, Nativity's associate pastor, would be transferred on Jan. 12 to St. Kilian because St. Kilian's pastor was going on a six-month sabbatical.

Announcement 'premature'

Topczewski said Friday evening that a decision to send Walker to St. Kilian as temporary administrator was never finalized and that Walker, not Nativity's pastor, had placed the notice in the bulletin.

"It was premature," Topczewski said of the announced transfer. "That is not the case . . . The assignment was not finalized."

Topczewski contended that the change was not a "reversed decision," but he acknowledged that "We've also received a number of calls and e-mails that I'm sure has also contributed to concerns about the assignment, and so the assignment was withdrawn."

Instead, parishioners at St. Kilian are expected to be told this weekend that Father David Verhasselt, pastor of St. Catherine Church in Oconomowoc, will also serve as temporary administrator of St. Kilian during its pastor's sabbatical, Topczewski said. Two retired priests will handle Masses and other pastoral duties at St. Kilian.

Walker, who also is assigned part time to serve retired and ill priests, will await reassignment as Dolan and other officials determine how to assign priests who have such backgrounds, Topczewski said.

Quick was pleased when a reporter gave him the news about Verhasselt and the retired priests Friday night. He was hopeful that the retired priests would reinstate some Masses at the former St. Patrick Church in the Town of Erin, which was closed in a merger with St. Kilian about two years ago.

Dolan has said he would not reverse the archdiocese's earlier merger decisions but that would not affect use of the former St. Patrick Church as a chapel.

"My question is, 'Why is he still a priest?,' " said Maureen Fitzsimmons-Vanden Heuvel, a leader of merger opponents from St. Patrick. "What do you have to do to be removed from the priesthood? The average person can't understand the thinking of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

"And I think, you remember Pee Wee Herman. My kids loved Pee Wee Herman. Even Hollywood could figure out that Pee Wee Herman's career was over when he got caught in the movie theater with his pants down."

Walker's record

Milwaukee County Circuit Court records show that Walker, 57, pleaded no contest in February 2000 to soliciting a male undercover police officer for a sex act and paid $1,007 in fines and court costs. The offense occurred Nov. 8, 1999, outside 215 W. Oregon St.

Walker also paid a $265 forfeiture of a disorderly conduct citation he received on June 23, 1989 - barely one month after his ordination - for his actions in the Underwood Parkway in Wauwatosa, according to Wauwatosa police.

A community newspaper at the time reported that the offense was for indecent activity. Police periodically have cracked down on homosexual solicitation and related activity in the parkway.

Walker could not be reached for comment Friday.

More than 40 parishes in the 10-county archdiocese have been closed in the past five years because of priest shortages and population shifts. But St. Patrick was one of three parishes where dissident members challenged the mergers by appealing to the Vatican.

Another one was St. Joseph parish in Cudahy, which merged with St. Frederick and Holy Family parishes in Cudahy to form Nativity of the Lord Parish.

Controversy arose at Nativity when Walker was assigned to that parish in the summer of 2000 as it was being formed. A letter was read at parish Sunday Masses in mid-January 2001 in which Weakland said Walker had received treatment, with ongoing therapy, and posed no threat to the community or to children.

The third parish was the St. Casimir Parish in Kenosha, which was merged with St. George Parish to form St. Elizabeth Parish in Kenosha. Walker was assigned there during the merger process, before a challenge was filed with the Vatican.

All three parishes lost their challenges at lower levels in the Vatican. The full Apostolic Signatura, the top Vatican court, is scheduled to hear their appeal, possibly as soon as today.

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Nov. 30, 2002