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Police Search for Motive in Attack on Priest

February 07, 2002

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Police Search for Motive in Attack on Priest

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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 room.

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 Police Department.

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 past

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 case.

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 occasions.

"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."

'Acting Christ-like'

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 said.

"Father Sean is one of the holiest men I think I have ever met in my life," she said.

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," Shaughnessy recalled.

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 said.

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 are attacked.

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 with, however.

"Many say they would rather face that challenge than to turn away," Froehle said.

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