Wisconsin Catholic School Teacher Accused of Sex Abuse Passed 11 Background Checks, Officials Say
By Haley BeMiller and Duke Behnke
Green Bay Press Gazette
August 29, 2019
Photo taken during the rededication of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Little Chute, March 14, 2004. Paul West was a teacher at the St. John school at the time, after he was accused of sexual abuse in Mississippi, according to The Associated Press. (Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
Officials at a Wisconsin Catholic school insist they were unaware of sexual abuse allegations against a former teacher and Franciscan brother who came to the state after serving in Mississippi.
St. John Nepomucene Catholic School in Little Chute, which operates under the purview of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, issued a statement saying Paul West passed background checks before and after the school hired him in 1999.
Meanwhile, an Appleton-area police department confirmed it's investigating West, and a group of clergy abuse survivors has called for a federal probe of allegations that he transported at least one child across state lines to sexually assault him.
The developments came in the wake of an investigation by The Associated Press published this week that revealed West, then a member of the Franklin-based Franciscan Friars of the Assumption, was accused of sexually and physically abusing three boys while they were students at St. Francis of Assisi School in Greenwood, Mississippi — including during summer trips to Wisconsin.
The order's provincial minister, Father James Gannon, subsequently paid two of the victims $15,000 each in exchange for their silence — an amount much less than is typically doled out by the Catholic church for abuse settlements, the AP reported.
West, an Appleton native, was first accused in 1998 after one boy reported his abuse to church officials, according to the AP. Greenwood police failed to thoroughly investigate the allegations, and later that year, the Franciscans sent West for an evaluation at St. Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute.
Then he returned to Wisconsin.
St. John Nepomucene officials issued a statement Wednesday saying the school hired West in 1999 and that background and reference checks at the time came back clear and did not reveal "substantiated allegations."
West also passed background checks conducted by the Green Bay diocese throughout the course of his employment in 2004, 2008 and 2012, the statement said. It was not immediately clear when he stopped teaching at St. John.
Neither the school nor diocese received allegations against West during his tenure or since then, according to the statement. He left the Franciscan order in 2002, the AP reported.
West was first licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as a teacher in 1992, then received an administrator's license in 1999. Spokesman Benson Gardner said in an email that both licenses expired in 2016 because West didn't apply to renew them.
West also passed seven background checks by the department because they received no reports of arrests from the Department of Justice, Gardner said.
Employment history reported by West to DPI indicates he worked as a principal and fourth-grade teacher during his time at the Greenwood school in Mississippi. He also was a computer coordinator for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1989 to 1992.
In Little Chute, he taught fourth- and fifth-graders.
Local law enforcement step in, but survivors want more
Meanwhile, police in Wisconsin have begun looking into West. Grand Chute Police Chief Greg Peterson said Tuesday that the department is investigating allegations against the former friar that may have occurred within the town’s jurisdiction.
One victim told the AP he was sexually abused at the home of West's parents. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin learned the home has a Grand Chute address.
“We were made aware of the situation, and there has been some coordinated effort underway to obtain investigative documents from other jurisdictions that are probably closer to the case,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he was unsure how long the department has been investigating West.
“It’s not like we got it this week,” he said. “I think we’ve had it for a while.”
Officials for the district attorney's offices in Milwaukee and Outagamie counties are also reviewing allegations against West, the AP reported. Outagamie County District Attorney Melinda Tempelis did not respond to an inquiry from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
Advocates with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Wisconsin and Mississippi called on federal officials Thursday to launch their own investigation into West and the Franciscans. The organization expressed concern that West was "moved by church officials" to the Green Bay diocese and taught well after allegations first surfaced.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said the agency generally does not confirm or deny whether something is under investigation and encouraged anyone with information about a potential federal crime to contact their local FBI office.
SNAP also noted that West does not appear on disclosure lists published by the Green Bay diocese or Archdiocese of Milwaukee that list credibly accused clergy within their ranks.
"During his time teaching in Little Chute, however, neither the Franciscans or the Diocese of Green Bay made notifications to Wisconsin law enforcement officials, the Department of Public Instruction, or to parents at the school," SNAP said in a statement.
It is not clear whether the Green Bay diocese received any information about West from the Franciscans or the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, which oversees the Greenwood school. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin has contacted both dioceses with questions.
The Associated Press contributed to this repor