|Devil in Disguise
By Jessica McBride
June 23, 2008
Jerry Kobs wanted to take Communion before Christmas. It was a cold, windy morning in December of 2007 when he stepped inside St. Patrick’s, the near-South Side church where he grew up and the scene of all his childhood terror. TV stations had been covering the bizarre news of a nun accused of sexually abusing – more than 160 times – two boys back in the 1960s, back when Jerry was a bewildered seventh-grade victim. Kobs couldn’t help worrying that maybe someone would recognize him. There he is, one of those guys molested by the nun, Sister Norma Giannini.
It had been 20 years since Kobs had last visited the church, and that attempt hadn’t gone well. He felt guilty then, accused somehow, as though even the holy statues inside St. Patrick’s could see inside his soul. This time, the troubled 56-year-old settled cautiously into a back pew, trying to look inconspicuous and studying every detail. He was struck by how clean the church looked and how the parishioners smiled as they strummed mandolins. Perhaps he could now be accepted. Perhaps he could now accept himself.
"I really wanted to reclaim St. Patrick’s church as my church," Kobs says, struggling to explain how the incidents of more than 40 years ago still live with him. "I had so many good things there – first Communion, first confession, confirmation. It’s still very sacred for me. I had to go there and take control of it. I’ve had so many nightmares of nuns attacking me."
His abuser, Sister Giannini, had finally been criminally charged and would be found guilty in February. Kobs and the other victim who pressed charges, James Koszewski, had talked freely to reporters, hoping for understanding. But in a media culture that often seems fascinated by the female rapist, the sad-looking, 79-year-old nun, with her blue turtlenecks and dour stare, attracted coverage across the country. Giannini’s is one of the very few sexual abuse cases involving a nun that’s been prosecuted in the U.S.
She told police the two boys were "sowing their oats." Bloggers called her the "Sex Nun," and joked about her age and what she looked like 40 years ago. Yet this was not about sex, but repeated abuse over a period of at least two years. "These two lives have been severely damaged – not only their own, but their marriages as well as the ripple effect on their children," Donna Burke, Kobs’ therapist, wrote to the court. "Their abuse was not some random molestation. Entrapment was a daily occurrence."
Compounding the crime was how Catholic officials dealt with the case, as the victims, beginning in the early 1990s, repeatedly sought resolution. Giannini’s order, ironically called the Sisters of Mercy, offered money to the victims to hush up the scandal. Milwaukee Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba learned of the abuse, but never reported it to legal authorities. Volunteers with Project Benjamin, established by former Archbishop Rembert Weakland, obtained a confession from Giannini, but also failed to inform the police. Weakland successor Timothy Dolan, when contacted by one of the victims, referred him back to the Sisters of Mercy and said he would offer up prayer.
Nor was the Milwaukee Police Department initially very helpful. After Koszewski made a complaint to the department, police lost track of the case for more than a year, and also lost most of the records. And after an aggressive cop finally launched an investigation and prosecutors charged Giannini, the local print media seemed to have no taste for the story. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offered cursory coverage, leaving it to the Chicago Tribune to break key elements of the story.
Kobs had a career as a chef, but hasn’t been able to work because of debilitating migraine headaches. Koszewski can’t work because he has post-traumatic stress disorder. "Their minds," wrote Burke, "[are] bombarded by memories. This predator has caused quite massive damage."
Kobs has lived away from his wife and children since the court case started. His now weekly visits to St. Patrick’s are about the only thing occupying his time. He talks about suicide frequently.
What does he do all day? "I think about my childhood – what was good about it," Kobs says. Both Kobs and Koszewski were good Catholic boys who did the right things and became victims of the nun they were taught to obey.
It’s a tragic irony of the Catholic sex abuse scandals, says Peter Isely, regional head of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The predators preyed on the most faithful Catholics, those closest to the church and least likely to resist the authority of priests and nuns. And Sister Giannini, Mother Superior of St. Patrick’s, was indeed an authoritative figure.
The Tough Nun
The near-South Side of Milwaukee was once the thriving heart of an archdiocese with one of the highest percentages of Catholics in America. Stand in front of St. Patrick’s Church at South Seventh Street and West Washington Street, and you’ll see other steeples in nearly every direction.
In heavily Germanic Milwaukee, where many Masses were celebrated in German, St. Patrick’s was built in 1876 to give haven to Irish immigrants, who preferred Mass in English. Its first pastor, the Rev. John Vahey, was born in County Mayo. The church building was erected in 1893, its interior design – oak pews, marble altars and stained glass – inspired by the medieval Book of Kells. "It became something of a center for Milwaukee’s Irish Catholics," says the Rev. Steven Avella, a Catholic historian at Marquette University.
Capuchins, Jesuits and other orders flocked to the archdiocese, which has the country’s fifth-highest concentration of religious order clergy. Among the many orders of nuns (there are still 37 religious communities today) in Milwaukee were the Sisters of Mercy. They staffed a Bay View parish, opened a protective home for young women, served in a Madison hospital, and founded the former Mercy High School on the South Side, Avella notes.
"Our distinctive call is one of service to the poor, sick and uneducated," says Sister Betty Smith, president of the Sisters of Mercy community in Chicago. Most of the nuns got assignments in teaching or nursing. Among the parish grade schools they ran was St. Patrick’s, where they served for 90 years. The original school was in the nuns’ convent, heated with a small stove.
The church’s connection to its religious ran deep: In the history of St. Patrick’s, 19 young women became Sisters of Mercy, while 12 boys became priests. In the 1960s, when Kobs and Koszewski attended St. Patrick’s, the 243 students were taught almost entirely by nuns, according to a parish history.
By this time, the long-Irish parish served many Polish families and some Hispanic immigrants, largely Puerto Rican. The old working-class neighborhood was beset by poverty and social changes. "There were a lot of broken families," recalls Casey Latz, a classmate of Kobs and Koszewski.
These changes were accelerated as the State Department of Transportation bought and demolished hundreds of homes to extend I-94 from Becher Street to the Marquette Interchange.
Still, the old patterns of parish life hadn’t really changed. You were baptized there. Went to school there. Went to Mass there. Were married there. Died there. "Everybody knew everybody and the families knew each other," Latz recalls.
Presiding over all this were the priests and nuns. But the most powerful figure was Sister Norma Giannini. The parish priest, now long deceased, was a drinker, according to Kobs, Koszewski and Latz. Sister Norma was brought in from Chicago to serve as Mother Superior and essentially manage the parish, while also serving as the grade school’s principal.
"She always commanded the conversation, whether a priest would be there or an adult would be there," Kobs says.
Kobs was in seventh grade when Sister Norma arrived in the mid-1960s, and Koszewski was in sixth. Koszewski recalls her as somewhat plain, with a pursed mouth and dark-brown, tightly plastered hair. "She wasn’t really attractive or unattractive," Koszewski recalls.
Kobs can’t even conjure up Sister Norma’s younger face. "She wore the full habit, so you couldn’t see much of her," he says. "I very rarely looked her in the face. I never wanted to look her in the eyes."
Sister Norma embodied contradictions. She was younger than the other nuns – only in her mid-30s – yet their dominating superior. She could be stern, almost steely, yet seemed more personable and modern than her predecessor.
"She was such a young Mother Superior, and everybody was so attracted to her – adults and teens," Kobs recalls. "They had never seen a nun not hit them."
The previous Mother Superior had walked around with a four-inch onyx crucifix. If you misbehaved, she clanked you on your head. But not Sister Norma. "She wanted to know the music everyone was listening to, about their dates," Kobs recalls. "She was trying to be a teenager."
Giannini would later tell a church panel she was emotionally immature when she entered the convent. She had taken vows at 18, afraid of sin and her emotions, she said, after being raised by a deputy sheriff father. Kobs says Giannini told him "her mother never wanted to live with her," and "she joined the Sisters because she felt she would be safe [from sexual urges]."
She had to grow up fast. She became a principal at age 30, according to court documents. At St. Patrick’s, she told the panel, the other nuns were older and many were sick. She was alone a lot at the convent and didn’t know anything about sex. She was lonely and infatuated, she said.
Burke wrote that Giannini was often strategic in how she selected the boys she victimized, choosing boys from families with absent fathers – "because of abandonment, alcohol or prison," leaving mothers who were isolated, busy and lacking in power.
Kobs’ mother was divorced, and his father was an alcoholic. His brother was in prison; his sister was pregnant. The mother worked two jobs, at Sears and Allen Bradley. The congregation largely shunned her, although she fervently embraced the church.
"They considered my mother a whore because she was divorced, and even as a little kid, I understood, by their faces and remarks," Kobs says of other parishioners. "My father used to beat the hell out of her. But initially, our pastor wouldn’t give her a divorce. My father died a drunk."
Sister Norma insinuated herself into the vulnerable, needy family, becoming a close friend of Kobs’ mother. Meanwhile, she began to abuse Jerry.
Then in eighth grade, Jerry was planning to be a priest. Nuns were married to Jesus, as he understood it. But one day Sister Norma kept him after school and asked him to kiss her.
"She would kiss me in the back of a classroom. This graduated more and more to where she would give me specific instructions about what she wanted me to touch, how to touch it, how to get through her habit. I can picture her on a couch in the convent, and she’s got a full habit on and yet I’m touching her."
She made him sit next to her in church during Mass. She molested him in the classroom, cafeteria, kitchen, behind the stage, in the convent, even in the basement of a friend’s home during a party when she followed him downstairs, police reports show. She assaulted him in his own home, too, when his mother had her baby-sit.
It was overwhelming and impossible to understand. He worried he’d go to hell for stealing one of Christ’s brides. Sometimes his hands shook so much he couldn’t open her habit.
The convent was filled with pingpong tables, making it a refuge for neighborhood kids. But for Jerry, its basement was the place where he was frequently abused, often while staring at the religious statues.
There was no one to tell. His father was an alcoholic. He didn’t get along with his brother. And his mother was Sister Norma’s best friend. Kobs felt all alone – but he wasn’t the only one being abused.
The Other Boys
James Koszewski started attending St. Patrick’s in first grade in 1960. His father was a printer and his mother a homemaker. They raised seven children.
In seventh grade, in 1967, Jimmy had a Beatles-style mop of hair and luminous brown eyes. Today, Koszewski still has Beatles hair. SNAP’s Isely says this is common with sexual abuse victims: He can often tell the decade of their abuse by the way they dress and look. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm says many victims get "trapped" psychologically in the era of their abuse.
Koszewski had a paper route that took him to the convent to deliver newspapers. There were 90 houses along his route. After the freeway, 40.
Come into the living room, Sister Norma insisted one day, ushering him to the sofa. You need to cut your hair, she said, according to police reports. But Jesus had long hair, James insisted, as the nun moved closer to him, kissing the seventh-grader.
After this incident, Sister Norma gradually became more demanding. She brought James to the convent, took his pants down and had sexual intercourse with him. From then on, she abused him repeatedly, sometimes giving him wine. There were 100 such incidents, Koszewski would testify. He wondered why Jesus and the angels didn’t intervene.
"I was so deep in belief that I thought if it was wrong, then an angel or Jesus should have stopped it," Koszewski says. "It hurts so bad. I feel like I was kind of left there, stranded."
Years later, when she confessed to Project Benjamin, Giannini suggested the two boys were sowing wild oats with her. "How many teenagers would resist that opportunity?" she asked.
At times, she seemed to treat the abuse like some kind of Harlequin romance. "Let’s just run away, you and me together," she once implored, according to Koszewski.
And on another occasion, Koszewski told police, Sister Norma said, "I wish I knew what was going on in that head of yours."
In her confession, Giannini said of Jimmy and Jerry, "I thought I was in love with both of them."
But she also admitted there were four other boys she abused at St. Patrick’s. Koszewski ticks off seven names of boys he thinks may have been abused by Giannini. One eventually committed suicide. Another was imprisoned for rape.
When she finished with one boy, she just quit. This resulted in feelings of rejection for the boys, Burke says, adding more confusion and hurt for the victims.
There was also a boy in Chicago before she got to St. Patrick’s, Giannini confessed. He was 14 or 15. She got counseling from a priest for two years, she revealed. And after each incident, went to Gesu Church and confessed.
In 1969, Giannini was recalled to Chicago, where she resumed teaching. (Smith denies that the Sisters of Mercy knew anything then about any abuse at St. Patrick’s or during her previous service in Chicago.) But for Kobs and Koszewski, the nun’s presence – and the days as victims at St. Patrick’s – would haunt their lives.
Searching for Normalcy
Kobs tried to leave Sister Norma behind. Once, a group of St. Patrick’s students piled into an old station wagon and drove down to Chicago to see her. Kobs didn’t want to tell the tight-knit clique why he didn’t want to go, so he tagged along.
After high school, Kobs briefly attended Milwaukee Area Technical College to be a cop before quitting to focus on cooking. "I really learned mostly by myself," he says. Kobs became a fairly well-known chef, working at establishments like Eagan’s, Buck Bradley’s and Panos Char House.
He’d married his wife, Terri, right out of high school. She works as a secretary for the Wauwatosa Police Department. But when their daughter was born, Kobs’ mother Elese suggested they ask Sister Norma to be the godmother. Kobs went along with it. As long as his mother was alive, telling anyone about what happened to him in grade school seemed unthinkable. Until her death in 1986, Elese remained close to Sister Norma, and Jerry’s life remained shadowed by his abuser. Sister Norma even attended his mother’s funeral, Kobs says.
His wife, not knowing about the abuse, invited the nun to visit them at their Wauwatosa house, trying to maintain the close relationship. "It was like a horror movie, like having the devil in our house," Jerry says.
Kobs’ life fractured in the mid-1990s when his daughter and son reached the age at which Kobs had been abused. His daughter was attending Catholic school in Wauwatosa then. Kobs made her quit the eighth-grade basketball team, worried he wouldn’t be able to trust the coach.
He attended his son’s football practices and games obsessively, never missing a single one from fifth through eighth grade. Just in case. When his son served as an altar boy at 6 a.m. Mass, Kobs would always be there helping him with the vestments. Just in case. But the worry and stress began to take a toll.
"I had so many migraines," Kobs says. "I would put my head on the table in the back of the restaurant. I wanted to kill myself so bad. It would be so easy, but I am an old-style Catholic, and if you kill yourself, you can’t go to heaven. That’s the only thing that stopped me."
Terri knew something was wrong. "I wondered why he didn’t want to go to social functions, why he held so many jobs. He could never say I love you. In 27 years, he’s probably said it 10 times. I think it’s because she made him say it. It’s hard for people to understand why it took 40 years for him to report it."
The final straw for Kobs was when the scandal of abuse by clergy in Boston hit newspapers nationally. "Every day it was in the paper," Terri recalls, and Kobs was confronted with the issue over and over. He decided he had to do something, not knowing that one of his fellow victims had already contacted authorities.
James Koszewski, too, had trouble leaving St. Patrick’s behind. After high school, he was a janitor there for a time. "I was stuck mentally from the abuse that happened at the school," he recalls. "I was playing in a band, drinking and smoking a lot of pot."
Koszewski met his future wife at St. Patrick’s – a woman from the city health department who came to the school to give the students hearing tests. They married, and their first child, a son, was born a year later – on St. Patrick’s Day.
Koszewski would drift from job to job – and go years without a job – over the decades, often drowning his sorrows in drugs and alcohol. He talked about writing a book about his experiences. In 1992, still tormented by his memories, he contacted the Sisters of Mercy to tell them about Sister Norma. It was the beginning of what would be a 16-year battle for justice.
Technically, religious orders like the Sisters of Mercy are not part of the archdiocese and report to their own provincials and hierarchy. Yet Sister Giannini served at St. Patrick’s at the invitation of the archbishop, and was working in a diocesan parish.
In perhaps a tacit admission of that interrelationship, Koszewski was summoned to an office at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. There, according to later police reports, Koszewski met with a representative of the Sisters of Mercy and Auxiliary Bishop Sklba, then Archbishop Weakland’s powerful right-hand man. (Sklba and Weakland declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Smith, president of the Chicago Sisters of Mercy community that oversees Giannini, says the meeting was at the Milwaukee archdiocese because "[the abuse] was on their property. It didn’t have anything to do with Illinois."
Kathleen Hohl, current archdiocesan spokeswoman, says no one reported Koszewski’s complaint to law enforcement: "That information was provided to the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy." Today, she says, such reports would go directly to the district attorney.
A representative of the Sisters of Mercy offered Koszewski $50,000 if he would sign a settlement promising to never write about his victimization. He recalls being told Giannini had confessed and would be removed from any contact with children.
A couple years later, the order gave Koszewski another $7,000 to go to computer school because he’d lost several jobs. "I felt like they were giving me back what she took from me," he says.
But it was never enough. He had a nervous breakdown and considered suicide.
Four years after Koszewski’s meeting, Kobs would meet with archdiocesan officials. In 1996, he talked about the abuse with his doctor, who walked him over to a therapist, who put Kobs in contact with a priest. The Rev. Vic Capriolo had been a deacon at St. Patrick’s and was at St. Bernard’s in Wauwatosa. "He didn’t care about his future in the church," Kobs says. "He was angry."
Father Vic – who declined to be interviewed – shepherded Kobs to a meeting with members of Project Benjamin. Weakland, under pressure about abusive priests, had created Project Benjamin two years before to national acclaim. The project was supposed to bring in outside professionals to solve the problems, wrote Weakland, and to be "compassionate, fair and just to all."
Kobs recalls meeting with Dr. Elizabeth Piasecki, director of Project Benjamin, and telling of his abuse. The Project Benjamin handbook protocol states that civil authorities should be notified of such cases, but no such action was taken. Again, Hohl says the policy at the time was to let the religious order take the lead. The Sisters of Mercy didn’t tell police either; they gave Kobs’ wife a check for $9,500.
"It was a surprise," Kobs says. "My wife had written a letter to the Sisters. They met with her at the state line and gave a check to Terri to help her." An anonymous donor sent another $2,000 to the Kobses.
Meanwhile, Project Benjamin was investigating Giannini. According to records later obtained under court order, Piasecki and two sex offender specialists (one now a state probation and parole supervisor) interviewed Giannini in secret on Aug. 28, 1996. One of the specialists is now deceased. The other did not return calls for comment. Nor did Piasecki. But Giannini’s attorney noted in later court papers that "Dr. Piasecki represented [to Giannini] that she was part of a legal team that was confidentially investigating how such allegations should be handled."
Sister Norma, then 68 and recovering from two knee replacements, admitted having sex with the boys, an admission that could be used in court – and later was.
She also said she’d kept working through 1994, two years after Koszewski complained to the church. In the last year, Giannini told the panel, she’d worked at an Illinois school as a principal. Smith denies this, insisting Giannini was immediately removed from school work after Koszewski’s 1992 complaint.
But even after Giannini’s confession was obtained, legal authorities were not contacted.
Kobs also directly applied for mediation from the archdiocese, but was denied. Victims of religious order clergy and nuns didn’t qualify. "The letter I received was very cold, and short," he says. "It said they denied my claim, that they were referring me to the Sisters."
Meanwhile, Koszewski had again contacted members of the Sisters of Mercy, threatening to write a book. He received a letter from their attorney that threatened him with a penalty of $50,000. The nuns could put a lien on his assets if he didn’t pay. They could seek repayment of attorney fees. They could ask for damages. He was urged to keep his "word and honor," his promises, to avoid "possible criminal liability."
In 2002, Kobs says, he e-mailed Weakland’s successor, Archbishop Dolan, and told him about Giannini in great detail. According to Kobs, Dolan wrote back to say he would pray for Kobs, but he should really talk to the Sisters of Mercy. Hohl says Dolan doesn’t deny receiving the e-mail, but adds that it’s hard to respond without seeing a copy, which Kobs no longer has.
"Archbishop Dolan may have interpreted the e-mail as an effort to report abuse, which is why he directed [Kobs] to contact the Sisters and included a pastoral message in his reply," Hohl says. Kobs isn’t satisfied: "It’s constant Catholic Church denial, denial, denial. It’s like abuse all over again."
Terri Kobs, who is also Catholic, sees it differently. "Yeah, he [Dolan] could do more, but if he says anything, he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t if there is a civil suit." She’s decided the abuse happened inthe church but was not the church. She has to look at it that way, she says, if she’s going to continue embracing her faith.
The Police Investigate
In August 2004, the ever-troubled James Koszewski had a falling out with his birth family and decided to legally change his last name. His decision, strangely enough, was to become James St. Patrick. He says he chose the name because of an actor on HBO, but in taking the name of the parish where he was abused, he has forever tethered himself to it.
"All my life, even with what happened with Sister Norma, I had good years at St. Patrick’s," he says. "F--- Sister Norma," he adds for good measure.
And so it was that a man named James St. Patrick called Milwaukee police in December 2004, still seeking some kind of justice. Then 51 and living in Belgium, he was married with two adult children, but he says he couldn’t stop thinking about Sister Norma.
"I wasn’t on the right medication. I am on antidepressants now," St. Patrick says. "I was working a crummy job as a janitor at an old folks home and every day I was obsessing. So I went down there to talk to a detective. I poured out my heart and soul but was just talking to dead air."
Detective William Stawicki took the call, police records show. Now retired, he could not be reached for comment. "Sit tight," Stawicki would say, week after week, St. Patrick claims. Upset that nothing was happening, he once again began mulling suicide.
About a year later, on Jan. 26, 2006, Kobs, not realizing that St. Patrick had called two years before, contacted Milwaukee police and was put in touch with a different detective, Lori Gaglione. Kobs had seen a news article about a priest who had been prosecuted for long-ago violations because he had fled the state. Under Wisconsin law, the statute of limitations for sexual abuse violations is sixyears. But if the alleged perpetrator has left the state, the clock stops running on the statute of limitations. Could Giannini be prosecuted?
On Feb. 2, 2006, not knowing that Kobs was talking to police, St. Patrick tried to call yet again, and was directed to Gaglione. She now had two victims telling similar stories about an alleged abuser.
According to Gaglione’s reports, she found some references to St. Patrick’s previous report to Stawicki, but the case file was missing. Stawicki told Gaglione he believed he’d turned the case over to Detective John Reesman, police reports say. But Reesman couldn’t recall anything about it.
Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz concedes St. Patrick had been mishandled in his early attempt to get action from the police. "Bottom line is that someone should have followed up," she says.
But with two accusers and with Gaglione in charge, the department was now aggressively pursuing the case. In her 20 years on the Milwaukee force, Gaglione had spent time undercover posing as a prostitute. She’d taken a special interest in circumventing Wisconsin’s six-year statute of limitations in sexual assault cases, drawing national attention (and winning a $25,000 award from Good Housekeepingmagazine) when she referred cases for litigation against unknown rapists using only their DNA profiles.
District Attorney Chisholm, who would eventually work on the Giannini case, has a high regard for Gaglione. "Certain investigators stand out through their commitment and their passion," he says. "They become leaders in their field." St. Patrick now calls Gaglione "our guardian angel."
Early in her investigation, Gaglione called the archdiocese. Did they have any files relating to Kobs? If there were any, they would be in the "Sexual Assault Files," she was told.
The files had 79 pages on Kobs and 115 on Koszewski. Inside were handwritten notes documenting Giannini’s confession to Project Benjamin.
Piasecki had left her position as Project Benjamin’s director in 2000 and now lives in Kohler. Yes, she said when Gaglione visited her home, those were her notes. Piasecki and her two fellow panel members for Project Benjamin would take notes as they interviewed clergy and religious order members. Sometimes they destroyed them. But not this time.
Now nearly 80, Sister Norma still had that take-charge attitude when Gaglione and a fellow officer knocked on her door in Oak Lawn, Ill. Giannini told the cops to take off their coats and sit down. Gaglione asked if she knew why they were there.
"Why don’t you tell me."
Did she know Jerry Kobs?
Did she know why they were there?
She went to the phone and called an attorney.
In September 2006, Piasecki took the stand in a secret John Doe hearing in Milwaukee to compel Piasecki’s testimony. Criminal charges against Giannini were filed in December 2006.
Kobs and St. Patrick were concerned the case wouldn’t be taken as seriously because it was so old and the perpetrator was a woman. Chisholm assured them this wouldn’t be the case. "It was a different culture back then, and priests and nuns were held in extremely high regard," Chisholm says. "They were such moral authority figures for them that it [Giannini’s abuse] caused them extreme anguish."
Chisholm says he equates church sex abuse to police corruption, due to the moral authority of the perpetrators. The ramifications "last a person’s entire life," he says.
Chisholm says his office scoured its files and found no sign the abuse was reported to the DA in the 1990s. As for how a prosecutable case sat so long in church files, he says he’d like to consider it an "oversight" by the church – but admits the era was full of such oversights.
Giannini’s lawyer tried to suppress Piasecki’s testimony, asserting clergy privilege, arguing, "Sister Norma went to … the said interview out of Holy Obedience to communicate information required by the archbishop." It didn’t work, and Giannini ultimately pleaded no contest.
"I never intended to hurt a child," the nun had told Project Benjamin years before. Now at the sentencing, she asked for forgiveness in a brief statement. But she never addressed the victims. Isely, who was in court, considered it lacking in emotion. Adds Latz, classmate of the two victims, "She walked in like she owned the place. When Norma walked in the door, she locked eyes with me, like she was trying to intimidate me."
She could have gotten 20 years. Prosecutor Paul Tiffin had recommended eight years in prison. Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge M. Joseph Donald sentenced Giannini to one year in the House of Correction and 10 years probation. Some imprisonment was required for the "evil destruction" and "pure heartache" caused by the nun, he said. He also suggested the victims sit down with her in mediation, something they rejected.
"She hasn’t called me for 40 years. She raped me. Now I’m supposed to call her and hang out with her?" St. Patrick asked.
Dolan declined an interview with Milwaukee Magazine. He released a general statement saying, "We can never apologize enough for the harm suffered by people who were sexually abused by priests, brothers or sisters." He also promised to adopt policies to prevent this from happening again.
But the archbishop refused to release files on Giannini and her victims – even with a release from them. He also refused to disclose how many other substantiated allegations of abuse the diocese has collected – despite demands from SNAP. How many other possible crimes, Isely asks, are buried in archdiocesan records?
Betty Smith says the Sisters of Mercy have learned from the Giannini case. "If it happened now, it would be handled differently. It was treated more like a therapist/patient relationship than being seen as criminal. It’s been a humbling moment, a shameful moment."
Mary Pat Fox, former president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group formed in response to the Catholic sex abuse scandal, says she hopes the case encourages more victims of nuns to come forward. "I think this is the tip of the iceberg," Fox says.
Since December, Jerry Kobs has lived away from his wife and children in a sterile, two-room apartment at the Knickerbocker Hotel. He spends most days in his apartment, alone, unable to muster the courage to go out, able to go to the grocery store only if it looks empty of customers. He talks to his wife every day, but doesn’t want to return home yet, doesn’t want his pain to affect others. At home, people changed their tone of voice to accommodate his headaches.
Kobs wonders why Giannini received less time than many male priests. Does he have closure? No. "When she dies," he says.
He pauses. "It’s not that I hate anybody. I’m not looking for her to die in prison. But she’ll never understand what she did. She’s a true pedophile."
The Sisters of Mercy have not expelled Giannini from their order. "I have had to walk with Sister Norma as a member of this religious community," says Smith. "I wouldn’t compare it to marriage … but our bond isn’t less sacred."
As to what drove Giannini to molest all those boys, Smith has no answer. "Who can look into anyone else’s soul? If you were to meet her on the street, you would never dream this."
Terri Kobs recalls when she unknowingly hurt her husband by inviting Giannini to visit their home. Sister Norma gave their daughter the book Anne of Green Gables, about a high-spirited girl who defies societal convention. It became her daughter’s favorite book, Terri recalls. "But now she has thrown it out."
As for her husband, Terri doesn’t know what’s in store. "I don’t know what our future is," she says. "I have no clue. You can’t explain it to anyone. They just tell him to forget it and go on."
But Jerry Kobs couldn’t forget it, even after the sentencing. He needed to know Sister Norma would actually be incarcerated, know she would finally lose control. In late April, knowing Giannini was due at the House of Correction, Kobs called to find out if she had reported there. He learned she wasn’t yet in the House or at her residence facility, so he called a Mercy hospital in Aurora, Ill., and asked for her. The receptionist said he would transfer Kobs to "Beverly," Giannini’s birth name. Sister Norma picked up the phone.
"Who is this?" she asked. He said it was Jerry Kobs. "No, it’s not," she snapped. But he repeated that it was. Then he heard a crash. She had knocked something down while trying to buzz the nurse. "I just want this over," he said. "So do I," she responded.
He was scared, Kobs says, describing the conversation as "spooky" and her voice as monotone. "How are the children?" she finally asked, and the conversation petered out. By the next day, April 24, Giannini entered the House of Correction’s Huber facility Downtown.
Kobs hopes her incarceration will stop the childhood memories from bombarding him, like the "look" on the face of one boy as he left the convent after an encounter with Sister Norma and scurried down the alley. Yet Kobs has returned to St. Patrick’s every Sunday since December, trying to reclaim the past he can’t forget.
So much has changed since the 1960s. Gang members recently tagged the church with graffiti. The parish school that Giannini ran is now an alternative program for incarcerated criminals run by the state. And the convent where she abused young boys now houses a legal services program for immigrants. Just west of the parish, the freeway looms, the overpass painted with birds and the phrase, "Would you know my name if I see you in heaven?"
The parish has become a home base of sorts for Kobs. "It’s almost like I am relearning how to pray again," he says. "My problem is I don’t want to be near anyone."
Kobs would like St. Patrick to accompany him to the church, but on a recent drive into the neighborhood, St. Patrick stopped the car, got out and vomited.
"I worry about Jimmy," says Kobs. "He would be a real candidate to do something to himself."
St. Patrick keeps turning over the events of his grade school days. "Who would I be today if I had never met Sister Norma?" he often wonders.
Yet even though he can’t stop thinking about it, he won’t return to the church whose name he now carries. He can’t, he says. "To me now it’s a symbol – a dark tunnel. It breaks my heart."
Who Led the Cover-Up?
When asked why the archdiocese didn’t refer the Giannini case for prosecution back in the 1990s, spokesperson Kathleen Hohl did something local church officials have never done before: She blamed the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office.
In Wisconsin, the six-year statute of limitations on crimes like sexual abuse stops running when a suspect leaves the state. It’s been established law since at least the late 1800s, according to Milwaukee prosecutors. But Hohl said the archdiocese concluded back in the 1990s that the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t "apply" that provision to church sex abuse cases in which a suspect – like Norma Giannini – hadn’t left the state specificallyto flee prosecution.
"It’s my sense the provision was applied by law enforcement [to] individuals who were deliberately fleeing arrest," Hohl says. Since Giannini hadn’t done this, Hohl says, the archdiocese believed the DA wouldn’t prosecute and therefore didn’t contact the office. "Another venue to determine the veracity of the reports of abuse had to be created," she says, and so the church created its own secret investigative panel.
SNAP leader Peter Isely has long criticized former Milwaukee District Attorney E. Michael McCann for not aggressively prosecuting clergy sex abuse. In January, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported a vicar’s memo stating that McCann advised the archdiocese in the 1980s to remove a priest accused of sexually abusing nine boys from the ministry for five years, "and if no complaints come forth in that time, perhaps he can be given another chance." McCann denied he had been told any crimes were committed.
In an interview with Milwaukee Magazine, McCann denied Hohl’s claim that his office was prosecuting only abusers who left the state specifically to flee prosecution. "There’s never been a policy of our office like that. I’ve never heard of such a thing. I don’t know why it [the Giannini case] didn’t come to us." McCann also adamantly denied his office had any knowledge of the Giannini case back in the 1990s.
– Jessica McBride
Jessica McBride is a UW-Milwaukee journalism lecturer and a columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. Write to her at email@example.com
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.