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  8 Men Tell of Sex Abuse by Friars

By Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal
December 20, 1992

Eight former students of a rural Catholic boarding school have told The Milwaukee Journal that they were sexually abused by staff members when they were teenage students there. Most of the former students contend that the sexual contact took place in the 1970s, but one described an incident as recent as 1987.

The school, St. Lawrence Seminary preparatory school, is operated by the Roman Catholic order known as the Capuchins. St. Lawrence, built on an isolated hilltop near Mount Calvary in Fond du Lac County in 1857, is now one of three remaining seminary boarding schools in the nation.

About 30 friars a term used to describe both priests and religious brothers and 200 students from around the country currently live there.

The sexual contact between students and friars was reported to school authorities repeatedly over a period of years, according to former students, who said they were assured that their complaints were being addressed.

But despite their complaints, they say, nothing seemed to happen. Offending friars remained at the school for years, and no criminal charges were filed, they say.

In two cases, friars who had been accused of inappropriate behavior with students were promoted. One still worked at the school as of last week.

Michael Rocklin, 30, a Detroit native now living in San Diego, Calif., said he had more than 50 sexual encounters involving masturbation, oral sex or both between 1976 and 1979 with Gale Leifeld, a teacher who became the school's principal in 1977. In an interview with The Journal, Rocklin said he also had unwelcome sexual contact with two other Capuchin priests while attending the school.

J. Peter Isely, who identified himself as a sexual abuse victim in The Journal on Nov. 14, described the sexual contact in a subsequent interview. He said the abuse began in 1974 when Leifeld massaged his shoulders and then moved his hands down and fondled Isely's genitals. Isely, now 32, said there were two subsequent episodes with the same teacher that year and a third when he was a junior two years later.

Several other former students, all now adult men, say friars fondled their genitals. One said a religious brother masturbated in front of him. Four say a religious brother gave them alcoholic beverages and showed them erotic magazines, and two of them say another friar asked students to masturbate with him.

Father Kenneth Reinhart, provincial since 1987 of the Detroit based Capuchin Province that includes Wisconsin, said in an interview with The Journal Friday that he first became aware of allegations against a friar at St. Lawrence in 1989. He acknowledged that only one of the allegations The Journal has learned of surprised him one involving a friar who worked as a nurse. The Capuchins are "deeply committed to doing whatever we can to protect any victims, to help any who have been abused," he said.

"I can't undo what has been done in the past. I apologize. I regret any harm that has been done to anybody by any of our men."

Most Remain Loyal

Most of the former students who talked to The Journal expressed loyalty to both the school and the Capuchins. One likened the loyalty former students feel toward the friars to loyalty incest victims sometimes feel toward abusive parents.

Said one 31-year-old Milwaukee man who asked that his name not be used:

"My purpose in talking to you is not to try to close the school down. You have to understand that some wonderful things happened there, too. But this sexual misconduct has got to end at any cost."

The former students who spoke with a Journal reporter live in various places around the country and have not been close friends.

Most of the men said they did not want their names used. Most say they are embarrassed by the events, several are seeing psychotherapists, two fear repercussions because they are gay, and three say the sexual episodes were factors in their attempting suicide.

Two of them said they went to the Capuchin order as adults

one in 1989 and one this fall and complained that they required psychological counseling because of the unsettling incidents. At the time, neither knew of the other's situation.

In each case, the Capuchins provided the former student with about $4,000 for therapy in exchange for a promise to keep the details of the incident confidential. Reinhart and the former students disagree on who proposed the amount of the settlement.

Reinhart

Reinhart sent a letter last week to all Capuchin friars in the province telling them to sign a document that establishes a policy for handling accusations of sexual misconduct. It urged friars to keep such matters confidential.

"The responsibility for investigating and handling these matters lies with the provincial and council," the letter states, referring to Reinhart and priests who govern the province.

Wisconsin law requires that all teachers and administrators report allegations of sexual misconduct to civil authorities.

The letter states that the Capuchins are committed to addressing sexual abuse "promptly, frankly and decisively."

"Especially in this area, there is no room for denial of any problem," according to the letter.

Reinhart's letter also made reference to the sexual contact between Isely and a teacher at the school and said the teacher had been "required to submit to psychological evaluation and therapy" and can no longer function as a priest.

Reinhart confirmed that priest is Leifeld.

Leifeld

Leifeld, 64, joined the Capuchins in 1947 and was ordained a priest in 1954. A native of Shorewood, he soon became a history teacher at St. Lawrence, then dean of students. He became principal of the school in 1977. Leifeld also was spiritual adviser to some of the students who said they had sexual contact with him.

Leifeld retired from St. Lawrence in 1982 and then moved to Shorewood. While living there, he held several jobs at the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Franklin, including recruiting men for the seminary. He also assisted the pastors and often preached at St. Robert Catholic Church near his home.

Leifeld is now in a treatment facility and could not be reached for comment. Reinhart declined to say where he was.

The Capuchins are a religious order separate from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but some members of that order staff parishes. Archbishop Rembert Weakland said he could not discipline friars.

Weakland said he had been unaware of Leifeld's history until he met about three weeks ago with Reinhart. He said the decision to place Leifeld in treatment was Reinhart's.

"I have to say the Capuchins, especially Father Reinhart, have taken their responsibility seriously," said Weakland, saying he was greatly saddened by the matter.

In separate interviews, Isely, Rocklin and two other men who asked not to be identified described incidents in which they had sexual contact with Leifeld.

One 31-year-old man, who now works in marketing for a major Milwaukee firm and asked not to be identified, said he was a 15-year- old sophomore and was running a film projector one day in 1976 when Leifeld came up behind him, put his hands inside the boy's pants and fondled his genitals.

"I froze," the man recalled. "I was shocked. I didn't move. I didn't say anything."

The man said he told another student, and the two met with another priest about the incident and were assured the matter would be dealt with.

A Boston man, who is 32 and who asked not to be identified, said he also was on the film crew when Leifeld gave him a back massage that led to sexual contact.

"He {Leifeld} was like a father to me," said the man, now 32. "He took a special interest in me, and I didn't want to get him into trouble."

That former student told The Journal that shortly after the event, he reported the incident to another staff member and was given assurance that Leifeld would be dealt with.

Instead, the man said, Leifeld began treating him brusquely and ordered him to undergo psychological testing for "serious emotional problems." For many weeks afterward, the man said, Leifeld "relentlessly" brought up the resulting psychological report, telling the boy that he was "emotionally ill."

During this period, the former student said he drank a large quantity of liquor that he stole from the Capuchins after he had been asked to serve liquor at one of their parties. The boy was later found on the school football field choking on his vomit, an incident he contends was a response to what he now considers to have been sexual assault and psychological harassment.

In 1977, the former student said, he heard of another student who was having unwelcome sexual contact with Leifeld, and he again reported Leifeld and was again assured Leifeld would get counseling.

"My anger and anguish is not so much just with Gale but with an institution that did nothing about what was happening," the man said.

A year after he graduated from high school, the man said, another person who later became a priest raped him anally at the Capuchin pre-novitiate house in Detroit. The rape victim said he attempted suicide a short time later. He said the man who raped him was now a Capuchin priest working on an Indian reservation in Montana.

Kowalski

In 1985, the man said, he told Father Myron Kowalski, then the provincial head of the Capuchins, about the rape and about Leifeld's earlier activities.

Kowalski could not be reached for comment.

In interviews with The Journal, former students said they had sexual contact at St. Lawrence with other Capuchin friars as well.

A 22-year-old Milwaukee man who was a student at St. Lawrence between 1984 and 1988, described an incident he said took place when he was a 16-year-old sophomore. He said he went to the school infirmary in the fall of 1985 for a cut on his arm.

The man said a religious brother attended to him.

"He said, 'Oh, my God, you've got scabies,' " the former student recalled. "I had no idea what he was talking about. He told me to take off my clothes and he fondled me up and down, including my genitals."

The friar then called in four or five students who lived with the student and performed similar exams on them, the former student said.

The man said he then was told to spend the night in a small private room with the friar.

"He sat next to me with a flashlight all night," the former student said. "Every now and then, he would flash it on my head and say 'I can see them jumping up and down.' "

Another former student, a 30-year-old Milwaukee man who graduated from St. Lawrence in 1980, said a different religious brother invited students into a bedroom next to his office, where the friar handed out alcohol.

During his junior year when he was 16, the former student said, he was alone in the friar's bedroom when the friar started talking about how warm it was and took off his shirt.

"He said 'You can love a man and have sexual contact with a man and not be gay,' " the former student said. "I was real uncomfortable about it. He was masturbating me and himself at the same time."

The student said he never reported the incident because he felt indebted to the friar at the time and didn't want him to get in trouble.

"I know he screwed up my life," said the man. "I tried suicide {after leaving the school} and was in a coma for a week. That wasn't all his fault, but I was a very confused person trying to accept my sexual identity." He said he was gay.

"I liked him because we could go in his office and smoke and drink. We did it every weekend."

Another staff member who was accused of inappropriate behavior was Father James Buser, a Capuchin priest who died in 1979.

Peter Isely said Buser exposed his genitals to him on two occasions.

Another former student who now lives in Boston described an incident he said occurred during his freshman year. He said Buser was wearing a short robe when he awakened the student about midnight and told to come to his office.

The former student said Buser sat on a mattress on the floor and began asking him what he knew about menstruation and demanded that he answer in detail. Buser then exposed himself, the former student said.

For several months after the incident, Buser would often get the student out of bed in the middle of the night and force him to kneel on the dormitory's marble stairs or on a broom handle, the former student recalled. He said he did not know why.

Former students also described incidents involving other St. Lawrence staff members. One of them was Father James LaReau, who taught Latin before he died in 1987.

Michael Rocklin said LaReau took him to a guest house on campus after an athletic event and performed oral sex on him. Then, LaReau asked Rocklin to perform oral sex, Rocklin said.

The sexual contact ended, Rocklin said, when he began crying.

 
 

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