Priest Apologizes, Enters Guilty Plea
Four of His Victims Hear 78-Year-Old Admit Sex Assaults Decades Ago
By Meg Jones
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 24, 1997
More than three decades after they were sexually assaulted by their priest, four middle-aged men sat in court Wednesday and heard the words they hope will help them get on with their lives: "I'm sorry."
Father Thomas F. Dempsey, 78, pleaded guilty to one count of indecent behavior with a child while four other counts were dismissed stemming from incidents involving five boys in 1964, 1965 and 1967, when he was a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of La Crosse.
As part of the plea agreement, Dempsey was required to apologize publicly to his victims, four of whom were in court Wednesday.
Wearing a tan sweater and black clerical collar, Dempsey stood stooped over at a podium in a courtroom and cleared his throat.
"I want to apologize to those individuals identified in the complaint," the retired priest said, reciting their first names in a soft but clear voice, "for my having taken indecent liberties with them. And I am truly sorry."
In the front row, tears welled up in the eyes of one of his victims, 43-year-old Paul Heintz.
"Seeing him and hearing the judge speak brought back the pain and hurt Father Dempsey caused me," Heintz said after the court hearing.
It was Heintz who brought the issue into the open when he filed a civil lawsuit in La Crosse County Circuit Court in 1993. Although the suit later was dismissed, Heintz notified La Crosse police in 1995 of the incident, which led to contact with four other men who said they were sexually assaulted by Dempsey when they were teens in the 1960s.
The five men, who were identified only by their initials in the criminal complaint filed Wednesday, said Dempsey touched them indecently and simulated sex acts on them after he had invited them to stay overnight so they could serve Mass as altar boys the next morning.
Some of the assaults happened in the boys' home when Dempsey visited them, the complaint said. The incidents occurred while Dempsey was a priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in La Crosse and St. Philip's Catholic Church in Soldier's Grove in Crawford County.
Dempsey was transferred to the Boston archdiocese in 1970, where he served at several churches until he retired nine years ago. He now lives in Goffstown, N.H.
Heintz and two other victims who heard Dempsey's apology Wednesday agreed to speak about their experiences.
"For me, it serves as closure, it's something that's been lingering all these years," said Joe Cody, 46. "We were called liars. We were told we were making it up. Today, to hear him say, guilty, guilty, guilty,' it's vindication."
"In my case, the diocese admitted they knew what he was doing," said Heintz, of La Crosse, "and they just transferred him from parish to parish. This didn't have to happen to me."
"It's a great victory for all of us today, all of his victims," added Jerry Moran, 47, now police chief in Soldier's Grove."
All three said they contacted the diocese shortly after they were molested, but nothing was done.
"The situation was exposed within a month," said Cody. "The question was, why did it take 30 years? It came out right away, but we were slapped down by the church."
When confronted with accusations of sexual abuse, Dempsey always fiercely denied the incidents, according to a statement issued Wednesday by the diocese of La Crosse.
"The actions to which Father Dempsey has admitted occurred in an era when society, including the church, was not as informed as we are today about issues of violence and abuse," the statement read.
The diocese also extended "its sincere regret, compassion and understanding" to Dempsey's victims.
La Crosse County District Attorney Scott Horne called the case unusual because the statute of limitations normally would have expired long ago. But he said once Dempsey left the state in 1970, the statute of limitations was put on hold, which allowed charges to be filed so long after the incident occurred.
Horne said he knew of only one other case, one from Massachusetts, in which a Catholic priest was convicted of sexual assault decades after the acts occurred.
In return for his guilty plea, Dempsey is required to perform 200 hours of community service in his hometown, undergo sex offender counseling, have no unsupervised contact with minors and pay $100 monthly for his victims' counseling expenses.
Dempsey and his attorney declined to speak to reporters following the hearing.
Horne said the victims were more concerned with receiving a public apology from their former priest than seeing him go to jail.
"What we tried to achieve was justice for the victims," he said.
Horne added: "This is not a prosecution or indictment of the Catholic church. What happened back then is symptomatic of how sexual abuse was handled. It was commonly swept under the rug."
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