- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Pope Francis has permanently removed a veteran Iowa pastor from the priesthood after an investigation found he sexually abused a minor decades ago, the Diocese of Des Moines confirmed Wednesday.

Howard Fitzgerald, who has worked at churches in central and western Iowa over the last 35 years, was informed of the pope’s decision Monday by Bishop Richard Pates.

Fitzgerald had been placed on indefinite administrative leave in June from his most recent positions at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Simpson College in Indianola and at Immaculate Concepcion in nearby St. Mary’s.

A diocese review committee found credible evidence that Fitzgerald sexually abused a minor in a “decades-old incident” last year. The diocese then forwarded its findings to the Vatican.

Pates wrote in a memo to priests that he met with Fitzgerald on Monday to notify him that Francis “had personally granted dispensations in his case from the obligations of the priesthood and sacred celibacy.” His removal went into effect immediately.

“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,” Pates wrote.

Citing the victim’s wishes, church officials have not released information about when and where the abuse occurred. Dating back to the 1970s, Fitzgerald has served at churches in Council Bluffs, Urbandale, Creston, Afton, Woodbine, Harlan, Altoona, Defiance, Glenwood and elsewhere.

Diocese spokeswoman Anne Marie Cox said Fitzgerald is “in transition with regard to housing” but did not elaborate. No phone number was listed for Fitzgerald, 63.

Cox said the diocese didn’t plan to announce Fitzgerald’s removal since it had already publicized his suspension last summer “when there was an allegation.”

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which represents victims, has criticized the diocese for being too secretive about Fitzgerald’s case. Pates should release more details about Fitzgerald’s abuse so that other potential victims can come forward, the group said, and tell the public where Fitzgerald has been living for safety reasons.

“It’s irresponsible for bishops to recruit, educate, ordain, hire, train, transfer and protect predators like Fitzgerald and then - when they’re finally exposed - cut them loose on society with little or no warning,” director David Clohessy said in a statement.

Pates was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment, Cox said. Pates has apologized to the victim, who was provided services from the diocese victim assistance advocate.

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