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  Vermont Diocese Slow to Cooperate with Investigators

By Sam Hemingway
Burlington Free Press (Burlington, VT)
April 27, 2002

In his Easter message to Vermont's Roman Catholics, Bishop Kenneth Angell offered hope that the diocese he oversees had adopted a new attitude toward sexually abusive priests, shedding years of "arrogance" or "denial."

Vermont's top prosecutor has since found that the shift in attitude hasn't translated into legal cooperation.

Attorney General William Sorrell said he was frustrated in early talks with Catholic leaders: The church - by April 12 -had provided no hard information about reported suspicions of sexual abuse among priests and had put Sorrell on notice that only information dating to 1982 would be made available.

Sorrell is learning what many have before him: The Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which oversees priests and parishes throughout Vermont, has a history of aggressively resisting outsiders' attempts to peer into allegations of child molestation and sexual misconduct by priests.

How the Vatican's new policy on handling suspected abusers will change the diocese's relationship with investigators is

uncertain.

William O'Brien, the Winooski attorney who represents the diocese, insists the diocese will no longer stand in the way of efforts

to investigate legitimate complaints of child sexual abuse by priests.

"We are going, to the extent we can, fully cooperate with the attorney general's requests," he said.

That stance is in stark contrast to the church's past strategy. Court papers and interviews with victims and investigators show

the diocese at times defied court orders mandating release of church personnel records or decided on its own which

documents to surrender.

At least two priests, both now dead, were protected by the church's legal strategy.

-- The Rev. Benjamin Wysolmerski, who was moved to eight parishes during his 35-year career, was accused of raping teen-age girls by two of his victims. He was never charged criminally, and both civil suits against him were settled out of court.

A The Rev. Michael Madden was suspected by police of molesting dozens of teen-age boys during a 20-year career at five parishes. He pleaded no contest to a single criminal charge of lewd conduct with a minor in 1989 and was held liable in civil court after the diocese settled privately with the victim.

The diocese's legal strategy also derailed efforts by 100 former St. Joseph Orphanage residents to learn more about abuse they claimed to have suffered at the Burlington facility. Nearly all reached small, out-of-court settlements with the church.

The diocese continually took the position that it was unbelievable any priest could have been a child sex abuser," said Robert Widman, the Florida lawyer who represented many of the victims in the orphanage cases.

Madden's story

Madden's case, more than any other, is evidence of Widman's claim. Madden allegedly molested dozens of boys at the orphanage and elsewhere over 20 years, but the church successfully resisted divulging his personnel file.

"He had many, many sexual relationships with boys," said Donald Stubbs, the now-retired police officer who investigated the Barton case for the Orleans County State's Attorney Office.

Leroy Baker, a former resident of the now-closed St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, said he was molested by Madden and claims to know of others who were, too.

Madden, who died in 2000, confirmed his misconduct to a psychologist while undergoing therapy at a religious sex offender treatment program in 1990, after his conviction.

"Madden admitted to engaging in mutual masturbation with several teen-age boys from 1970 to 1973," Dr. William Butler wrote in a psychosexual evaluation of Madden filed with Orleans County District Court.

Stubbs said he first heard about Madden when a guidance counselor at Lake Region High School called him in 1988 with a report that Madden had sexually abused a 14-year-old boy.

Madden was pastor of St. Paul Church in Barton and St. John Church in East Albany.

According to the boy's story, Madden took the youth to Madden's Warren home for an overnight stay, where he fondled him.

Stubbs said he later learned of a second youth Madden had allegedly molested.

Madden "rented a cottage with a boat on Crystal Lake," Stubbs said. "He essentially provided an open house for boys to come there, drink, stay over and ride on the boat. For some of them, that was all there was to it, but not all."

When Stubbs confronted Madden at St. Paul's rectory and asked him for his side of the story, Madden just shrugged his shoulders, Stubbs said.

"What can I say?" Stubbs said Madden told him. Madden was arrested and charged with two counts of sexual assault involving the boy and the second teen and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct involving the boy.

News stories about the Madden case triggered an outpouring of support for him from his congregation. They also prompted other victims to call Stubbs.

"I had someone from the orphanage tell me he had once walked in on Madden in bed with a boy," Stubbs said. "I had several people from Essex Junction, pretty well-to-do folks, say, 'Yeah, it happened to me."'

Madden spent 1976 as a pastor at St. Pius X Church in Essex. He also worked at St. John Church in St. Johnsbury, Our Lady of the Snows Church in Waitsfield and St. Paul Church.

Madden's criminal prosecution proved problematic. As credible as the boy's story was, his jitters about having to retell it in open court concerned prosecutors.

"It was a very daunting thing for him to be able to do," said then-Orleans County State's Attorney Jane Woodruff. Phil White prosecuted the case until resigning to go into private practice, and Woodruff took over.

Efforts to learn what diocese officials knew about Madden's past misconduct and when they knew it became a legal sideshow.

White tried to subpoena then-Bishop John A. Marshall to testify in court about where else Madden had worked and whether the church had received other complaints about Madden's contact with boys.

The church, citing Scripture and the U.S. Constitution, argued Marshall was immune from having to testify.

In order for the church, its priests and bishops ... to enjoy the constitutional right to freely exercise their ecclesiastical or religious functions, it is essential that they have independence from state authority," wrote O'Brien, the church's lawyer, objecting to the subpoena request.

Judge Dean Pineles eventually ruled that the church had to provide the information under seal. White says the church never complied with the order.

In the end, the state agreed to drop the two sexual assault charges in return for a no-contest plea on the lewd and lascivious charge.

Madden was given a five-year deferred sentence and was subsequently removed from active diocesan service.

After balking at going through the Corrections Department program for sex offenders, Madden was allowed to attend the St. Luke Institute program in Suitland, Md.

"What a farce," Woodruff said. "That program is run by the church. Why did he get special treatment when Corrections is known to have a very good program for offenders?"

Madden's troubles with the law followed him through the 1990s. He was found guilty of violating his probation and served two years in jail. He was cited for violating probation six times.

When the Barton youth sued Madden and the diocese in Orleans County Superior Court for mental and emotional distress, the diocese again resisted requests to disclose information about Madden's past.

The diocese was dropped from the case after reaching a $12,500 settlement with the Barton teen before the trial on his civil court claims.

The jury later awarded the youth $162,500. He is presently trying to recover the money through Madden's estate.

The Wysolmerski cases

Terry Reis Kennedy grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Bellows Falls in the 1950s. The Rev. Benjamin Wysolmerski was deeply revered by her parents and often had dinner at her home.

In court papers, she said she was 12 when Wysolmerski began kissing her and fondling her while she was doing chores at the Sacred Heart Church rectory where he lived.

Later, the fondling turned into repeated acts of forced sexual acts and intercourse in cars, the rectory, his family's summer camp, she said. Wysolmerski died in 1994.

"He did it while he was the teacher at the school teaching us catechism," she said in a 1994 court deposition. "He did it on back roads going to visit people who he was helping in the parish. He did it to me in the attic of my grandmother's home."

Kennedy, who now lives in India, said in a 1995 interview that Wysolmerski regularly required her to confess her sins to him afterward, sometimes adding the more explicit details she had left out.

At one point, she said, she became pregnant by him and that he paid for her to go to New York City and get an abortion, which was illegal at the time.

Wysolmerski's pursuit of her continued during her years at St. Regis College in Westfield, Mass. She said he sent her money and visited her on weekends.

In his deposition, Wysolmerski denied ever being alone with her, other than occasionally giving her rides home in his car.

He died 10 months after the deposition was conducted. His nephew, dentist Sigismund Wysolmerski, called Kennedy's claims at the time "trivial" and "far-fetched."

Kennedy said she suffered through two failed marriages and mental health problems. In 1990, she decided to confront Wysolmerski's conduct after learning he had been reassigned to her old hometown of Bellows Falls.

She wrote then-Bishop John A. Marshall, detailing the abuse. She said she was sure Marshall already knew about it because Wysolmerski had once showed her a letter two Bellows Falls women had written to Marshall's predecessor about the matter.

"My study has uncovered nothing so far to corroborate your story and some rather strong evidence, which would seem to exonerate the one against whom you have made your allegation," he wrote back.

Janet Labelle Prince's story is similar to Kennedy's. From a strong Catholic family, Prince was 12 when Wysolmerski began to force himself on her while she was a student at Christ the King School in Burlington. The abuse continued through her teen years.

The priest managed to re-enter her life in the late 1970s after she moved back to Burlington with her husband, who had befriended Wysolmerski.

"I felt I was going crazy," she said. "I was drinking heavily and he made me do what he wanted. I was so afraid he would tell my husband what had happened in the past and my marriage would go down the drain."

Prince said she sought help from five priests during the period she was abused, but none did anything about her claims.

She also said she felt victimized all over again when, during the pre-trial phase of her case, church lawyers interviewed her for five days, often focusing on the gruesome details of Wysolmerski's conduct.

"It was like water torture," she said during an interview this week. "They certainly did not show any mercy toward the victim."

It was also during her lawsuit that Judge Matthew Katz fined the diocese $5,000 for not abiding by his orders to produce its records on Wysolmerski.

"They were absolutely unwilling to produce any of the information whatsoever," said Jerome O'Neill, the attorney for Prince and Kennedy.

Prince said evidence she gathered during the course of her case convinced her that Wysolmerski victimized as many as 25 girls at the eight parishes where he worked during his career.

A lot of them have marriages and families and don't want to be open about it," she said.

Prince settled her lawsuit in 1997 for an undisclosed amount of money.

 
 

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