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  Two Parishes, Two Responses to Sexual Abuse by Priest
One Church Searches for Other Possible Victims

By Megan Twohey
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
February 6, 2004

Two parishes -- St. John Nepomuk in Racine and St. Charles Borromeo in Burlington -- got the news Sunday via e-mail from the Milwaukee Archdiocese:

Father Michael Benham, who had served at both churches, had been stripped of his duties because of substantiated allegations that he sexually abused a minor when he was a parish priest at St. John Nepomuk in the late 1970s.

"Please keep all of those involved, especially the victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, in your prayers," Father Joe Hornacek, the archdiocese's vicar for clergy, said in the e-mail.

This week, the two Racine County parishes are having somewhat different responses to word of the abuse.

St. John Nepomuk's parish is searching for other possible victims as members sort through feelings of anger and betrayal, while parish members of St. Charles in Burlington, where Benham served for 12 years and where he recently bought a house, are shocked but confident that no abuse occurred there.

The abuse victim, a 37-year-old man from Racine, who has declined to provide his full name, told the archdiocese last fall that he had been abused by Benham more than 25 times between 1976 and 1980, starting when he was 9 years old.

On Jan. 26, Benham was removed from St. Patrick's in Elkhorn, where he had most recently been serving as parish priest. Kathleen Kohl, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Benham acknowledged abusing the victim.

The victim said Benham "had a group of kids that he'd always do stuff with," at St. John Nepomuk, but that he does not know if other people were harmed during that time.

Kohl said Thursday that there had been no previous complaints about Benham, and that no one had come forward with accounts of abuse since Sunday.

But St. John Nepomuk's parish remains uneasy, and Sande Jensen, the parish director, said Thursday that she had received a phone call Monday from a member who had asked for the number of a Milwaukee organization that works with victims of abuse.

"It's shocking that (the abuse) was so close to home," said parish member Lisa Jones.

Jensen said she was crafting a bulletin to be distributed at services this weekend in which she was asking people to report any known incidents of abuse.

A town hall meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Charles for members of the parish to talk through their feelings about Benham.

While many members are shocked, Father Jan Kieliszewki, the parish priest at St. Charles, said he had no reason to suspect anyone in Burlington was abused by Benham.

He said he thought it would be inappropriate to ask that possible victims come forward.

"That's the archbishop's business," Kieliszewki said.

John Moe, who has been attending St. Charles for 40 years, said:

"I was stunned and saddened (by the news). But I don't expect to block him out of my life. I believe in forgiveness and I have no reason to suspect that he did any of that activity here."

 
 

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