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  Elkhorn Priest Removed for Abuse
Archdiocese Says He Admitted to Assaulting Victim in Late 1970s

By Susanne Quick
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
February 1, 2004

Parishioners of St. Patrick's Parish in Elkhorn were greeted Saturday night by Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who brought grave news: Father Michael Benham, their parish priest, had been stripped of his duties, the result of a substantiated allegation against him of sexual abuse.

The victim is a 37-year-old Racine man, according to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The man declined to provide his full name to protect his family, particularly two children who are unaware of the situation.

He said he was abused by Benham more than 25 times between 1976 and 1980, starting when he was 9 years old. The man said Benham "had a group of kids that he'd always do stuff with," at St. John Nepomuk in Racine, where Benham was then a parish priest. He does not know if other children were harmed during that period.

Benham has acknowledged sexually abusing the victim, according to Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

"This is the first allegation ever made against this priest," Hohl said, adding that Benham has cooperated fully with the archdiocese's investigation.

Benham could not be reached for comment. He was removed from the parish Jan. 23.

According to the victim, it wasn't until October that he felt ready to talk about his past.

A friend of his in Elkhorn, who has two little boys, was attending Benham's church. According to the victim, the boys "were getting to know" the priest, and he became concerned for their safety.

So he told his wife.

"She knew there was something in me that was wrecked," he said. Finally, she was able to put the pieces together.

He next went to the archdiocese, where he met with Barbara Reinke, director of the archdiocesan office that responds to sexual abuse allegations.

She told him she would contact the Racine County district attorney's office and ask investigators to look into the charges. But she believed that the statute of limitations had expired, he said.

Hohl said the victim's report was received Nov. 3 and was forwarded to the Racine County district attorney the next day. In mid-January, the district attorney's office told the archdiocese the case was too old for them to prosecute.

Both the victim and Peter Isely, regional director of for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, believe the diocese dragged its feet. According to them, it wasn't until an influential friend of the victim contacted the Racine County district attorney in January that the diocese moved forward.

Hohl said the archdiocese followed its usual procedure.

"The problem," Isely said, "is that the archdiocese has a conflict of interest when it comes to cases like this. They can't advocate for a victim and at the same time protect the institution's liability."

This conflict, said Isely, "leaves victims . . . in limbo. It's the classic Darwinian struggle. Only victims that can survive this grueling procedure prevail."

Both the victim and Isely also believe Benham should have been relieved of his duties earlier, when the allegations first arose.

But Hohl said the archdiocese cannot, by law, interfere with an investigation by law enforcement. The hands of church authorities are tied until that investigation is closed, she said.

Bishop Richard J. Sklba will deliver the news of Benham's suspension to two Masses at St. Patrick's today. Father Paul Daniels, a retired diocesan priest, will become temporary administrator of the parish beginning Monday.

NEXT

Bishop Richard J. Sklba will speak at two Masses at St. Patrick's today.

Father Paul Daniels will become temporary administrator of the parish Monday.

 
 

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