Pope Francis has removed a veteran Iowa priest from the priesthood following a church investigation that revealed he sexually abused a minor decades ago.
Father Howard Fitzgerald was on administrative leave since June, pending the findings of an investigation into the alleged sexual assault of the juvenile, who wishes to remain anonymous at this time. Fitzgerald has worked with Iowa churches for the last 35-years, most recently with the Immaculate Conception Church and Simpson College, according to a report in the Des Moines Register.
Pope Francis removed the 63-year-old priest after the findings were sent to the Vatican for the Holy Father’s verdict. The diocese investigation found “credible evidence” Fitzgerald abused the minor in a “decades-old” incident. The priest was informed of the Pope’s decision by Bishop Richard Pates on Monday.
Pates informed employees at the diocese of Pope Francis’ decision to remove the priest from his duties, explaining that the Pontiff “had personally granted dispensations in his case from the obligations of the priesthood and sacred celibacy.”
“I encourage your prayers for Howard at this time as well as continuing prayer for victims of sexual abuse both by clergy and perpetrators in the broader society.”
Additionally, the Register reports that, at the victim’s request, the diocese has not released information regarding when and where the abuse of the minor took place. However, Fitzgerald has worked at more than 10 parishes within the state.
The priest’s removal from the church by Pope Francis comes a day after the Holy See appointed Bishop Charles Scicluna — the Vatican’s former sex crimes prosecutor — as head of a panel that will hear appeals by priests who have been accused of abusing minors in the abuse scandal that has rocked the Church for years.
Two months ago Pope Francis announced the creation of a judicial entity that will handle sexual abuse cases. Scicluna was the church’s lead prosecutor for sex crimes between 2002 and 2012 and was appointed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), who passed legislation requiring all bishops to send abuse allegations to his office before taking any action in an effort to control the situation.
Ratizinger’s decision came after he realized bishops were transferring accused priests from parish to parish in order to avoid prosecution, according to the AP.
Pope Francis has promised to tackle the sexual abuse accusations the Catholic Church faces and address cases, such as the one involving the defrocked Iowa priest. Victims advocacy groups say removing the priests is not enough and the Church should stop being so secretive and warn the general population about the pedophiles.
Father Fitzgerald is the fifth Des Moines priest to be defrocked for sexual abuse since 2003. The Davenport diocese went bankrupt in 2006 after paying a $37 million settlement to 160 victims families.
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