The arrest of a Catholic priest in the Diocese of La Crosse for possession of child pornography has sparked renewed criticisms of the way in which the diocese has handled the cases of accused priests. Agents from the Wisconsin Department of Justice arrested Father Patrick Umberger after finding child pornography on his computer, according to a DOJ press release. “Obviously we’re at a point here with this arrest, where something has to be done to get into diocesan files and review . . . what is going on in this diocese,” says Peter Isely with the Midwest chapter of SNAP – the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
SNAP has been critical of the way in which the diocese handled cases of abusive priests during the tenure of Archbishop Jerome Listecki, who’s since been named Archbishop of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. “The Diocese of La Crosse has more cases of priests that have been reported to them for things like this, that are still apparently in ministry or working in the church than any diocese in the United States,” claims Isely. “They clear priests up there for reports of things like at a rate that’s six times higher than any other diocese, and no one’s reviewed any of this. Isely says he has no idea whether the diocese was aware of any allegations against Umberger. “That’s really part of the core of the problem here.”
Umberger has served as pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Onalaska, and as chaplain for the parish school and a middle school. According to a statement from the attorney for the diocese, James Birnbaum, Umberger will not be assigned any duties pending the outcome of the investigation. “This action should not be interpreted as an assessment of guilt or innocence. It is taken to protect all parties involved. Consistent with diocesan practice, the Diocese has been in touch with and is cooperating with civil authorities. ”
According to a press release from SNAP, Umberger was appointed by former bishop Listecki to be the diocese webmaster in 2000, and Umberger operates his own website. Isely says the involvement by DOJ reinforces the importance of contacting law enforcement, rather than allowing the Catholic church to police abusive priests. “If they’re a victim or a witness or suspect any crime against a child, that involves a clergy person, not just Catholic priests, any adult, they need to go to law enforcement,” he says. “That’s how things are going to get solved.”