New Mission ...
By Janet Ortegon
October 27, 2012
SHEBOYGAN - One day, the Rev. James Connell heard himself described as a party to a fraud who helped to cover up a notorious case of clergy sexual abuse.
That's the day his whole life changed.
At the time, Connell was both pastor of St. Clement and Holy Family Catholic churches and a vice chancellor at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He was looking into the sexual abuse case against Lawrence Murphy, who abused students at a Milwaukee-area school for the deaf beginning in the 1950s.
And on that day in 2009, members of a group called the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests stood on the steps of the archdiocese and demanded his removal from the review board investigating the case because, they said, he sent information about Murphy's crimes to church officials instead of to the police.
That's all he was required to do, but Connell went home and took a long look at himself. Now, he calls that moment his epiphany.
"Later that afternoon the thought hit me: What if I was a victim and the church were treating me this way?" said Connell, who goes by Father Jim to parishioners. "What if it had happened to me? That just changed me completely."
The 69-year-old priest's career is winding down now, and that "what if?" has become the defining question of his life. In his 25th year of serving the church, Connell has stumbled into a new mission: serving those who have been hurt by the church.
Comforting the wounded
In Sheboygan, which had more than its share of abusive clergy members over the years and names like Bill Effinger still fill people with anger, Connell's work is important.
"It comes down to three basic questions they want answered in every situation," Connell said. 'Who knew what? When did they know it? What did they do or not do with the information?"
Exhibit A is the story of Effinger, who served as pastor at Holy Name Parish from 1979 to 1992. Effinger was convicted in February 1993 of second-degree sexual assault for having sexual contact with a 14-year-old local boy in 1987.
After Effinger's crime came to light, nine other people came forward to say they had also been abused by Effinger over the years, including when he served parishes in Kenosha and Lake Geneva prior to being assigned to Sheboygan.
"If they knew (about the assaults Effinger committed before coming to Sheboygan), why didn't they treat him as a criminal?" Connell said. "Call the police, lock him up, but don't send him someplace else for another assignment. If they had treated him as a criminal, he never would have come to Sheboygan, and this harm never would have happened."
Effinger was one of 15 clergy members who served in Sheboygan between 1938 and 1993 who are now recognized by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as offenders. Effinger died in prison in 1995.
'There's many more out there'
In 1987, Sheboygan seventh-grader Adam Sprenger was considering a life in the priesthood so his parents, Jerry and Barbara, took him to their parish priest for guidance.
The priest was Effinger. After he took Adam on two overnight trips to discuss his future, Adam stopped wanting to be a priest.
It took many years for Adam to admit that Effinger assaulted him on those trips, and even more years to ask for help. His life as a young man was marred by drug abuse and despair that devastated the entire Sprenger family.
But when the family turned to the church for help, help is what they got.
With only one exception, when an inexperienced employee of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee didn't give the Sprengers the help they asked for because of a missed deadline, every other request they made was met with sensitivity and love.
That included spiritual help and financial assistance for the family and long-term rehab for Adam, now 36, living in Minnesota, working in radio production and, by his parents' account, doing great.
"There's many more out there that need help, and that's why we're doing this," Jerry Sprenger said. "The church needs to know that they can correct a lot of things by being open about it and doing what they did with us."
The guts to change the church
Connell insists that the church can do better, including waiving their privilege so diocesan attorneys can testify about whether they advised bishops to conceal abuse.
That's not going to happen "until a bishop comes in who has nothing to lose," he said, naming Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who served as archbishop in Milwaukee and is now archbishop of New York, as leaders who can turn things around.
"They're newer bishops, they're not part of the problem," Connell said. "They're not bishops who were transferring these guys. Their hands ought to be clean. Those guys have to have the guts to turn the tide and that includes Dolan. He could change the church. He could change it all."
In an emailed response to questions posed to Archbioshop Listecki, Julie Wolf, communications director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, didn't respond to specific questions about Connell but said all priests are responsible for protecting children.
"Given the odds, all priests know that someone sitting in the pew each and every Sunday has experienced some kind of sexual abuse - either in a school setting, at the doctor's office, and even in their family," Wolf wrote. "The fact of the matter is that the church, in Wisconsin in particular, has been responding to the needs of victims of clergy abuse for decades."
Connell said he hasn't received any bad feedback from the archdiocese as a result of his advocacy.
"There hasn't been one bit of that," he said. "When I happen to encounter Archbishop Listecki, not one word. I just keep pushing the issue but nobody has said one word to me."
According to the 2011 annual report on the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the U.S. Catholic Church has paid out more than $2 billion in settlements and judgments related to abuse cases.
Reaching out to victims
Connell began meeting with survivors of abuse and he started with Peter Isely, the the Midwest Director of SNAP, who had stood on those steps and criticized Connell.
"I really struggled with it," Isely said. "I did agree to meet with him but I was surprised. That had never happened."
The result, Isely said, is a friendship between the two men and a new understanding of what the church has done and what survivors still need.
"One of the things I've learned from my friendship with Jim is there are no sides," Isely said. "There are things to work on and there are misunderstandings and there's mistrust and there's pain. More than anything, there's a lot of pain. But there's nothing leaders of the church have done that is not understandable."
Vicky Schneider, who was abused by a religious order priest when she was a teenager in Green Bay, still works to achieve that understanding.
Schneider, 47, added her name to a newspaper ad run by Connell and other priests last year encouraging people who had been abused in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to get involved in the bankruptcy case filed by the archdiocese.
"I put my name on the ad because it's important to have women represented," said Schneider, who calls herself skeptical about the church's efforts to atone for its misdeeds and help victims heal.
"I think there has to be some really profound humility demonstrated on the part of bishops and priests," she said. "I don't know exactly what that might look like ... Open up the files, everyone needs to read it. Every dirty little secret, dirty little file … just hand it over. How else can we trust you?"
Connell has several ideas for how the church can repair the broken trust.
For one thing, a document created in 2002 to address allegations of sexual abuse should be audited every year. There is no oversight for the Essential Norms, but the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which spells out the steps that must be taken to protect children from abuse, and the Essential Norms, is audited each year.
Both were created by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in 2002 in response to the crisis.
For another, Connell said, the Cardinal's Oath must be addressed.
The oath, taken in Latin by men being installed as cardinals in the Catholic church, includes the words, "I promise and swear ... not to make known to anyone matters entrusted to me in confidence, the disclosure of which could bring damage or dishonor to Holy Church."
That, Connell said, is a problem.
"One of the things the pope needs to say (is) '... all of you bishops out there start talking and explain the whole story,'" Connell said.
These probably aren't popular positions in the hierarchy of the church, but Connell isn't concerned.
"What do I care?" Connell said. "I'm not going to go anywhere, I'm getting ready to retire. I bet I could count on one hand the number of priests who have chastised me."
Every priest, every Catholic
Deacon Bernard Nojadera, executive director of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection for the USCCB in Washington D.C., said Connell and other priests who take a public stand for change in the church are doing what has to be done.
"It shouldn't just be Father Jim, it should be every priest, every Catholic. It should be every person. Because what we're doing with all of this, the church as a whole, Father Jim, we're all acting as change agents. We're making this cultural shift."
Because of its expertise in dealing with a scandal of this magnitude, Nojadera said the Catholic Church has been invited to work with both the Boy Scouts of America and Penn State University, which are both reeling from sexual abuse scandals of their own.
"The church has made tremendous strides that other institutions are looking at," Nojadera said. "I think folks are realizing this is not just a problem for the church alone."
'Drowned in the depth of the sea'
For his work on behalf of victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, Connell was awarded the Millstone Award by SNAP in July.
The award honors those who stand up for children, and is named after a passage in Matthew 18:6: "But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
Connell said news of the award left him stunned.
"Blow me over with a feather," he said. "There's not a bone in my body ... that says I should receive an award."
Isely, however, said Connell has brought peace to countless victims of abuse just by hearing their stories and making an honest effort to help.
"He cares so much about the Catholic church and he cares so much about this diocese, he cares about his brother priests and he really, really cares about victim/survivors as well," Isely said. "(There is a) longing inside of so many victim/survivors to support the church in a way because they really support Jim."
In September, Connell was invited speak at a conference of Voice of the Faithful, an organization that formed in 2002 in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis and he continues to advocate not just for victims but also for more priests to speak publicly about what still needs to happen in the church.
Connell said the church has to be just as courageous in addressing past abuse as it has been progressive in making sure it never happens again.
"I'm trying to get these thins out, make things happen," Connell said. "We all know it takes somebody to get something started and who knows what could happen down the road? I think there's a new ministry that has developed, yeah."