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home : news : April 15, 2014

Deacon John Zurek. Courtesy photo.
Deacon John Zurek. Courtesy photo.
Father Chuck Swanson. Courtesy photo.
Father Chuck Swanson. Courtesy photo.
7/15/2011 8:00:00 AM
Police chaplains help officers, victims of crime
Catholic Voice

Police officers have to be tough, decisive and in control.

But they face difficult emotional situations that can challenge their ability to do their job, such as telling family members a loved one has been killed or investigating the death of a child who is the same age as their own daughter or son.

That is where police chaplains can help.

Chaplains ease the burden on officers by helping them deliver hard news to the families of victims, spending time with those families on the religious and emotional aspects of tragedy - and being available for the officers themselves, said Deacon John Zurek of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion.

"Our primary goal is to take care of the officers," said Deacon Zurek, who is a chaplain with the Sarpy County Sheriff's Office and the Bellevue police and fire departments. "They're supposed to be macho, nothing can hurt them. But I've had a 6-foot-2 deputy in the field, crying."

Many faith traditions - including Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Baptist and Jewish - have clergy or other representatives with special training act as chaplains for police and firefighters.

Chaplains are ready to help people no matter their particular denomination, said Father Chuck Swanson, an archdiocesan priest who retired last year but remains active as a police and fire chaplain in Sarpy County and Omaha.

"You are a sign there is a faith dimension to what they're going through," Father Swanson said. "A lot of it is comingled - the faith aspect and the emotional aspect."

Sarpy County Sheriff's Lt. Russ Zeeb, a member of Missouri Synod Lutheran's Beautiful Savior Parish in La Vista, said he relies on the chaplain service for help during stressful times, for himself and for families impacted by tragedy.

Zeeb said he was one of the officers in charge when a young couple called 911 while lost in a snowstorm six years ago. They were high on methamphetamine, hallucinating and disoriented and officers could not find them before they froze to death. Searchers found the body of one of the victims in one day, but they worked seven days before they found the body of the other victim.

"It had been a long several days. We were working around the clock. I was stressed out about it," Zeeb said. "I couldn't tell the family anything definitive. I called Father (Swanson)."

Father Swanson, a confidante to Zeeb, as well as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Springfield at the time, was out of town and could not help Zeeb in person. But Father Swanson told Zeeb he would pray for him, and that Zeeb was doing all he could, Zeeb said.

"He was my shoulder to cry on that day," Zeeb said.

Chaplains are not directly affiliated with the Archdiocese of Omaha but officials with the archdiocese support priests and deacons who volunteer, said Father Swanson, who added that he is carrying on in his father's tradition of service - the late Francis Charles Swanson was a firefighter in Omaha for 33 years. "There's a real satisfaction in being able help victims and be supportive to police officers and firefighters," Father Swanson said.

Deacon Zurek said the ministry leads to solid friendships built around faith among chaplains and officers.

"Our chaplains have witnessed the marriages of deputies, baptized their children. We've done funerals and wakes for officers. I have a fond, soft spot in my heart for law enforcement officers and their families."

Related Stories:
• Police officers turn to God in stressful job
• Faith is found in police forces across the archdiocese
• St. Michael is patron saint of law enforcement, warriors

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