He was known as the friendly priest, the one whom parishioners could talk to without fear of judgment. He ministered to the small parish of German immigrants in Washington as no one else had recently, parish officials said, doubling its size in five years.
Then, suddenly, the Rev. Michael Schapfel returned home to Germany shortly after Easter. Allegations of sexual abuse from that country flooded in to the parish Tuesday, shocking those in Washington's tight-knit German Catholic community.
As the news spread, a contrasting portrait of Schapfel as a popular religious leader has emerged from his parishioners and people he worked with at the school in the Maryland suburbs where he taught seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.
"I've been talking to so many people since we learned about all this yesterday," said Matthias Vowerk, parish president of the German Speaking Catholic Mission in Washington. "It's amazing how many people told me he had changed their lives. There was no indication he could be capable of any of this."
Schapfel was transferred to Washington after allegations that he had a relationship with a girl in Germany while he served as the chaplain of a religious program for girls in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to the Schonstatt Institute of Diocesan Priests, the Catholic News Service reported Wednesday. Schapfel denies that he had sexual relations with the girl before she was 16, the age of consent in Germany, the news service reported.
A spokeswoman for the German-based Schonstatt movement, the secular institute that runs that girls' program, said the woman who alleged the relationship decided to end it in 2004 and told the Schonstatt Institute of Diocesan Priests.
At that time, Monsignor Peter Wolf, general rector of the institute, told the Diocese of Mainz, where Schapfel was ordained, that the priest had an affair with a woman, and that it would be advisable for him to no longer work in the area, the news service reported. As a result, he was transferred to the community in Washington in 2005.
Diocesan officials, however, said that before they transferred him, they had not been told the case involved a minor to whom he was ministering.
In March, the Schonstatt institute informed the Mainz Diocese there were suspicions that the priest had sexual relations with other girls and young women during his time at the Schonstatt program, according to a statement released by Schonstatt officials. The Mainz Diocese suspended him and recalled him to Germany.
No allegations have emerged during the past five years at the Washington area church or the German School where Schapfel worked in Potomac, Vowerk said. The group meets for Mass at Georgetown Prep and consists of German ex-patriates, mainly professionals who work at the embassy and such organizations as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
"Many people can't believe it . We have to wait and see what the investigation uncovers. Many still hope it will be nothing, but the allegations are quite serious," he said.
That disbelief, however, has been tempered by concern about whether anything similar occurred here, Vowerk said. In the parish, all of Schapfel's interactions with youngsters and teens occurred in the presence of other adults, Vowerk said.
Today, the parish sees as many as 120 attendees for Sunday Mass, almost double the number when Schapfel arrived. He accomplished that partly by reaching out to families he met while teaching religious education twice a week at the German School.
"He took his job of caring for the children very seriously," said Principal Waldemar Gries. "I can say only positive things about him."
In recent months, after a priest in New York leading a similar German parish was injured in an accident, Schapfel began splitting his time between the two parishes, Vowerk said. He also assisted occasionally at the Parish of St. John the Beloved in McLean, Va., according to a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Arlington.
Some said he seemed exhausted before his sudden departure April 5. He apparently did not mention to anyone that the German diocese had recalled him. When he left, he told lay leaders at his church that he was taking a long-needed vacation, Vowerk said. When classes resumed a week later, he told school officials he had become ill and was still in Germany. He asked them to find a substitute.
Now, leaders at the church and school are trying to make sense of Schapfel's tenure. The Archdiocese of Washington plans to send a representative to the parish's Mass on Sunday, and an official from the German Bishops' Conference is scheduled to fly to Washington next week to speak with the parish's lay leaders.
"The hardest thing we're trying to deal with now is what to tell the children," Gries said. "It will not be easy to explain."