No Charges against Former Catholic Officials, for Now
By Frank Zufall
May 1, 2014
|Robert Brancato, 45, of Rapid City, S.D., alleges that when he was 12 years old, officials at his Catholic school in Wheeling, Ill., began abusing him at a lake home on Long Lake in the town of Birchwood. |
No charges, at this time, will be made against former Illinois priest James Steel and Donald Ryniecki, former principal of the St. Joseph Catholic School of Wheeling, Ill., for alleged sexual abuse against Robert Brancato, then a minor, during 1982 and 1983 at a residence owned by Ryniecki on Long Lake in the town of Birchwood.
Brancato, 45, now living in Rapid City, S.D., said he will appeal Frost’s decision to Wisconsin’s attorney general, and if that fails to result in charges against the two Illinois men, he will take his appeal to a federal court.
“I will not allow this to go by the wayside,” said Brancato. “These are habitual offenders who need to be punished, and they need to answer to society for breaking the laws and breaking the souls of children like me.”
Brancato alleges that when he was 12 years old and a student of St. Joseph Catholic School, his principal, Ryniecki, and then-parish priest, Steel, began sexually abusing him at Ryniecki’s summer cottage on Long Lake and continued at the lake in 1983 and at his school in Wheeling. After four suicide attempts Brancato made to end his life because of the alleged abuse as a youth, the last in 2002, he revealed the story of sexual abuse to authorities.
The Archdiocese of Chicago, after conducting its own investigation of Steel by a Review Board, on November 18, 2006, stated, in a January 2014 file, that “the Review Board determined that there is reasonable cause to suspect that the alleged misconduct occurred.”
The Archdiocese subsequently paid Brancato, formerly named Robert Brangard, an undisclosed settlement.
In Illinois the statute of limitations has lapsed, preventing any criminal complaint against Ryniecki and Steel, a laicized priest, but Wisconsin’s legal doctrine includes a concept called “tolling” which pauses the clock on the statute of limitation for those who are not living in the state, so even 32 years later a complaint could be filed against the two Illinois men.
“These need to be investigated,” Brancato told the “Spooner Advocate” in February. “It shouldn’t have gone away, and these gentlemen need to face a trial, face prosecution. This should not happen in America.”
Washburn County District Attorney Tom Frost told the “Advocate” he had reviewed the prior investigation completed by Washburn County Sheriff’s Office in 2005, and met with the investigator now retired, Austin Parentau, and he had also reviewed the Archdiocese of Chicago documents, the newest information, and he spoke with Brancato over the phone.
“At this time I do not believe I can charge either of the suspects with criminal charges,” said Frost in an April 23 letter to investigator Will Fischer, Washburn County Sheriff’s Office, who had reopened the 2005 investigation. “There is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that criminal offenses occurred. I will retain in my office the reports and other materials you presented. If additional evidence becomes available, please advise as I may reconsider this charging situation.”
Frost told the “Advocate” the Archdiocese payment to Brancato could not be used as evidence in a criminal case.
“I can’t go to the jury and say, ‘Look, the Archdiocese paid him money. He must be right,’” said Frost. “It can’t even come in a criminal case. It wouldn’t be admissible.”
After Frost’s decision, Brancato spoke with the “Advocate” and complained that the investigation against the two Illinois men had excluded interviewing four potential key witnesses, including Ryniecki’s brother and niece, who had first-hand knowledge of the living arrangements at the Long Lake cabin where Brancato alleges he was abused, and also of the owners of the nearby Lincolnwood Resort.
“I asked why Ryniecki’s niece was never contacted or interviewed because she knew about the sleeping arrangements,” said Brancato about his conversation with Frost. “She knew about me being there because one of the big issues about me being there was determining the sleeping arrangements and whether or not I was even at the cabin. None of these people were talked to.
“I asked why they never contacted the resort owners next to the cabin, Lincolnwood Resort, because I’ve talked with them in the past, and they knew something wasn’t right with what was going on there. However, they could never pinpoint what it was.”
Brancato said he also asked Frost why a former priest at the Wheeling school, Vincent McCaffree, now serving a federal prison sentence for child pornography, who knew both Ryniecki and Steel, had not been interviewed about his case.
“He [McCaffree] admittedly stated in court he had molested over 100 boys,” said Brancato. “Of course I was not one of them, but this was the same time I was being molested by Steel and Ryniecki at the same rectory. Why was he never interviewed to see if he would talk? None of these things were answered. I was given the answer, well, it could go one way or the other, but I’m not about to spend the resources investigating this case any further.”
Frost said his office does not do the investigations – the sheriff’s office does – and cost is not an issue in pursuing an investigation.
“In all the years I have prosecuted cases, the cost has never entered my mind,” said Frost. “It is not a factor, and that’s the same for the law enforcement people I’ve worked with over the years. If there is something out there that needs to be remedied, we are willing to put in the resources.”
Frost said he did a thorough review of all the evidence, and there was not enough to pursue charges.
“My conclusion after spending some time with the evidence, and I did spend some time on it, and I did meet with the investigator who is retired from the Sheriff’s Office, and they did a good job when it was first presented, and I believe the correct decision was reached when it was presented, originally. I looked at it from the perspective of what new had been added to the case, that Archdiocese report, specially, relating to their investigations, and that didn’t add any evidence that could be used in a trial, so I’m left with the same situation they were left with that was first presented to [former District Attorney] Mike Bitney.”
Frost added, “The bottom line for this case and any case is I have to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed.”
Asked why the four individuals Brancato cited as potential sources of evidence were not interviewed, Frost said he did not believe those individuals would make a difference in charges ultimately being issued.
“If I thought there were leads that would make a weak case strong, I would ask him [Fisher] to do that, too,” said Frost.
Brancato also is critical of the Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney for not asking the FBI to participate in the investigation that involved taking a minor across state lines.
“There is no reason to think the FBI’s investigation into this would have changed the result,” said Frost. “The Sheriff’s Office did a thorough investigation.”
Brancato said there may not be enough evidence for charges because not all the evidence has been pursued.
“Well, if you decide not to investigate to the full extent of availability, of course, there is not going to be sufficient evidence,” he said. “If we forget to dot the I’s and cross the Ts, this case does become my word against theirs. However, I had given the investigator on the onset of this case, it came out to 52 pages of details, describing vehicles, layout, who was there, how did the abuse occur, what was the modus operandi for this type of case. None of this was gone into deep, deep detail at all.
“I feel, unfortunately, your county, as well as the state of Wisconsin, suffered an egregious loss by allowing these pedophiles to not only continue their abuse but now to get away with it free and clear,” he alleged.
“I feel really badly for him,” said Frost about Brancato. “To be sexually abused changes a person’s life.”
Frost added, “What I see from my perspective is that the criminal justice system doesn’t have a remedy for every wrong that is committed. There are people who commit crimes whom we can’t prosecute and that’s just the way the system is set up.”
Brancato said the system also keeps the sexually abused from coming forward to tell their stories to authorities.
“You want to know why victims don’t come forward,” said Brancato. “You are looking at it.”