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Cause for Another Apology

Duluth News-Tribune
January 22, 2006

What did the Catholic Diocese of Superior know about Father Irving F. Klister before his abrupt departure to Texas in the 1950s? And what crimes could Wisconsin church leaders have prevented?

A week ago, Superior Bishop Raphael Fliss apologized to parishioners of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Hudson, Wis., seeking forgiveness for his "failings, omissions and lack of attentiveness" concerning the presumed crimes -- a double murder and suicide -- of the late Rev. Ryan Erickson.

He might also direct that remorse to the Catholic faithful of El Paso, Texas, and Springer, N.M., where another Superior Diocese priest lived for decades and allegedly sexually abused minors before his federal child pornography conviction in 1990.

A onetime chancellor of the Superior Diocese and founding editor of the Superior Catholic Herald, the Rev. Irving F. "Jack" Klister was a rising star in the Northwestern Wisconsin church following his ordination in 1944. Entries in the Official Catholic Directory show Klister, who died in 1997, served at the Cathedral of Christ the King and several parishes, as well as the St. Joseph's Children's Home.

What the records don't show is that his service there coincided with his sexual abuse of a 14-year-old boy, a crime Klister confessed to years later -- long past the statute of limitations -- in a graphic hand-written note he penned to a federal agent posing as a child porn dealer in 1989. At about the same time as the Wisconsin abuse, in 1956, Klister was abruptly transferred to El Paso. There he continued to molest boys, according to the testimony of several alleged victims in a lawsuit filed after his death. All the while Klister remained "incardinated" -- or under the jurisdiction of -- the Diocese of Superior.

"There's no doubt in the world that Superior knew he was bad news because he continued to be incardinated in Superior," said Terrence McKiernan of Bishop Accountability, a Boston-based victim's advocacy group that has extensive files on Klister. "Bishop Fliss knew about him because a letter had gone to Fliss from the vicar general in El Paso."

That letter did not come until 1995, a year after Diocese of El Paso officials maintain they first learned of abuse allegations against Klister. But Fliss, whose leadership of the diocese began in 1979, would have had some knowledge about Klister because few priests are ever dispatched to work for such a long period of time outside of their home diocese. And if there was no note Superior church officials could have pinned on Klister's vestments warning of the possible danger he posed, there certainly were rumors.

"All I have is hearsay," said the Rev. Philip Heslin, the current chancellor of the Superior church who first arrived in 1957, the year after Klister left. "There were accusations made with sexual overtones but we didn't know what happened here."

Though Heslin did offer an apology for Klister's actions, he maintains the diocese was not responsible for the priest, despite his incardination.

If all this sounds like ancient history, it is, except it's the exact sort of record the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and local dioceses, including Superior's, vowed to reveal in their new era of transparency. In disavowing Klister, the Superior Diocese most likely omitted his name from its 2004 report to the national bishops' group of all priests accused of abuse. That same report was missing the name of Father Erickson, whose first abuse accusation became known to Fliss in 1994 when Erickson was still in seminary. Appallingly, leaving out Erickson's name was within the rules of the bishop's group, which for no earthly reason excuses its dioceses from reporting on the misdeeds of seminarians.

It follows also that Klister was not among the unnamed priests included in a February 2004 letter by Fliss "To the People of God in the Diocese of Superior." In that, he wrote: "Between 1950 and 2002, eight diocesan priests were accused of child abuse. Two of them were found to be guilty of the allegation against them and are no longer functioning as priests. The remaining six are either deceased or retired from priestly ministry."

Deceased himself, Klister will harm no one now, and it's far too late to do anything about his acknowledged Wisconsin victim, who reportedly died more than a generation ago in Vietnam. But a full and complete disclosure of the church's knowledge of Klister's actions and those of any other wayward clerics who may have slipped through its reporting system is essential. And with that, an apology, to those far beyond its borders.

 
 

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