February 07, 2002
Police Search for Motive in Attack on Priest
by James R. Langford and J.D. Gallop, Florida Today
COCOA BEACH -- Robert Rutkowski was a troubled man, known for keeping to himself,
keeping fit and shouting Bible verses behind the closed door of his rented motel
Neighbors would hear him berating himself, screaming about God and yelling
to no one in particular that he needed a job. Sometimes, the motel manager knocked
on the door and told him to keep it down.
Last week, he may have reached a crisis point, the manager said. Friday afternoon,
he went to Our Saviour Catholic Church and asked to talk to a priest. He met
Father Sean Heslin, police say, a priest who had transferred to the parish last
fall and one who was known for going out of his way to help.
The meeting ended badly: Rutkowski ran away, Cocoa Beach police say, and the
59-year-old Heslin was found shortly afterward on the church floor, severely
beaten. He was flown to Holmes Regional Medical Center, where he was in critical
condition Monday night.
Arrested 45 minutes later at a bus stop on the Cocoa Beach causeway, the 36-year-old
Rutkowski remains in the Brevard County Detention Center on $100,000 bail. Investigators
and prosecutors are sorting through his past, searching for anything that could
provide a motive.
"(Rutkowski) is uncooperative, and we are unable to talk with the victim
because of his condition," said Jay Harmon, spokesman for the Cocoa Beach
Parishioners at Our Saviour -- and other churches where Heslin has pastored
-- remain in shock that anyone would attack a priest who so obviously considered
helping others a vocation.
"He takes to heart that what you do for the least of my brethren, you're
doing for me," said Linda Shaughnessy, president of the parish council
at St. James Cathedral in Orlando, where Heslin was rector for nine years. Troubled
At a court hearing two days before the attack on Heslin -- on a misdemeanor
domestic violence charge -- "it was felt that there was some behavior exhibited
in the courtroom, perhaps speaking loudly or making inappropriate comments,"
that would make a psychological evaluation of Rutkowski helpful, said Linda
Gruver, director of the state attorney's domestic violence division.
Judge William McCluan, who recalled the hearing, said Rutkowski had "said
he would represent himself. Somewhere along the line, the state attorney said
they wanted to have his competency evaluated. I said 'fine, you need to file
a motion.' "
If the motion is approved, the state would arrange appointments with several
doctors to evaluate Rutkowski. The process takes as long as a month to arrange.
Aside from the domestic-violence charge, Rutkowski's criminal record is scant:
a series of traffic infractions and a worthless check charge.
The domestic violence incident was reported Dec. 21 at his father's home on
Merritt Island. Sheriff's investigators said Rutkowski injured his father during
a confrontation the day before. The two had a run-in the year before, investigators
say, when the elder Rutkowski suggested his son check himself into a mental
hospital after he was suspended from his job. No charges were filed in that
In December, however, Robert Rutkowski was arrested and taken to the Brevard
County Detention Center. He was released on $1,000 bond, jail records show.
He returned to the Aladdin Motel on Merritt Island, where he struggled to raise
money for the $145-a-week room he had rented since June 2001, according to Denise
Sease, the manager of the 23-unit motel. "He was three days late for rent
on Friday," Sease said. "His mother had come in to pay it around the
same time that the priest got beat up."
On Sunday, Sease helped Rutkowski's father clear clothes, a Bible and a case
of energy drinks out of his motel room.
Sease said the younger Rutkowski could sometimes be heard screaming scriptures
in his room.
"I had to knock on the door a couple of times. He would be in his room
and would berate himself, he'd call himself lazy, scream and yell that he should
get up and get a job," she said.
Strange behavior had been observed at the gym where Rutkowski worked out, too.
Mike Smith, co-owner of World Gym on Merritt Island, said some members of the
gym called the police on Rutkowski, who had a small but muscular build, on separate
"We knew of his violent outbursts," Smith said. "We told him
we weren't going to put up with it."
But Sease describes her former tenant as "a good person who just needs
help badly." She also noted his strong religious beliefs: "He believes
in God, that God will provide."
Parishioners at Heslin's church are praying that Rutkowski gets that help --
even as they pray for their priest's recovery.
Knowing Heslin has been injured so badly is hard to cope with, Shaughnessy
"Father Sean is one of the holiest men I think I have ever met in my life,"
Born in Drumcauskeem in County Leitrim, Ireland, in 1942, Heslin was ordained
at St. Mary's Cathedral in Kilkenny in June 1967.
His first assignment was as associate pastor at St. James Church and teacher
at Bishop Moore High School in Orlando. He later served at churches in Winter
Park, Winter Haven, Deland and Daytona Beach before becoming rector of St. James
Cathedral in July 1992.
There, Heslin was known for his tireless attempts to help others -- whether
parishioners in a hospital or homeless people who haunt the streets around the
cathedral seeking assistance.
It was not unusual for Heslin to return calls as late as 9 p.m. after returning
from hospital visits, Shaughnessy said.
"As Catholics and Christians, we believe we are called by Jesus to be
humble servants. No one I've ever met is a better example of that than Father
Heslin," she said.
Frequently, homeless people came to the downtown cathedral at night, seeking
assistance or a place to sleep. Heslin would tell them where they could find
a hot meal or a place to sleep. "He handled them with the utmost of compassion,"
When Heslin was transferred to Our Saviour, St. James held a going-away party
and Shaughnessy remembers clearly a woman who came by and dropped off platters
of food. She wasn't even a member of the parish.
The woman said that when her husband and brother were in critical condition
in a hospital, Father Heslin had come by every day. "If it hadn't been
for him, the family didn't know how they would have coped," Shaughnessy
On Sept. 12, 2001, Heslin was assigned to Our Saviour in Cocoa Beach. Upon
his arrival, Heslin made visiting the parish's 70 to 80 homebound members a
top priority, said Grace Young, who leads the church's ministry to the sick
and homebound. She described the priest as "very caring" and "gentle."
Heslin has not been confined to his contributions to the churches where he
has worked. In July 1992, he was appointed by the bishop to serve as co-dean
of the Central Deanery South, supervising a portion of the Orlando diocese's
70 churches. Heslin has also served on the Priests' Council and the Diocesan
Finance Committee. He has been active with the Christian Service Center and
has served as a chaplain for the Orlando Regional Health Center.
At Our Saviour, Heslin's role is a critical and demanding one, said Bill Fitzpatrick,
who founded the church's St. Vincent de Paul conference in the late 1980s.
Heslin is charged with ministering to 2,200 parish families. Although he gets
assistance from the Holy Cross fathers, who have a retirement residence in Cocoa
Beach, "even with their help it's a full-time job," Fitzpatrick said.
"He does it with love and care. Father Heslin seeks out people that look
like they want help."
In harm's way
That disposition would have made it unlikely for Father Heslin to refuse to
talk with someone who came to the church, like Rutkowski, seeking a priest.
"It comes with the territory, being Christ-like to individuals,"
said Carol Brinati, spokeswoman for the Orlando Diocese. "As you know,
Christ wasn't discriminating in who he talked to . Christ spoke
to rich people and beggars and thieves and prostitutes. In being Christ-like,
our priests also try to minister in that way."
In the course of such ministering and counseling, priests and people in pastoral
professions do sometimes place themselves in harm's way. And periodically, they
Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate is trying
to put together a simple guide for people in pastoral ministries of signs of
mental illnesses and addictions, director Bryan Froehle said.
"There's a certain degree of reality out there a person can't prepare
for, especially a priest who feels called to minister and present the face of
Christ, one that is open to vulnerability," Froehle said.
"Priests are always trying to ask themselves, 'Just how far should I take
my sense of wanting to respond to people's needs, how far should I take asking
questions about what the condition is of the person who might be asking for
these kinds of ministries?' " he said.
Reflecting the increased awareness of such dangers, people entering the priesthood
or pastoral professions today are likely to be trained differently to deal with
drug addicts or people with potentially violent mental illnesses than those
who attended seminary decades ago, Froehle noted.
"There are always those challenges. If you open yourself up, sometimes
you're going to get hit, you're going to get hurt," he said.
It's a danger that many of the priests the center has worked with feel comfortable
"Many say they would rather face that challenge than to turn away,"