Shattered Dream: Priesthood Was His Life's Goal

By Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal
December 20, 1992

For as long as he could remember, Peter Isely understood that he was going to be a Roman Catholic priest.

His father died in a car crash when he was 9 months old, and his mother was devoutly religious. He lived with his mother and five siblings in Fond du Lac and attended St. Joseph's Catholic elementary school there. "I never had much choice: I was going to be a priest," Isely said. "Becoming a priest was the holiest thing you could do."

As a child, Isely said, he could not do some things that his friends did. "I couldn't go to parties with girls, because I was going to become a priest," he said.

Attending St. Lawrence Seminary preparatory school was the natural course to follow.

Now a psychotherapist with master's degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Harvard Divinity School, Isely says his boarding-school isolation, his ingrained respect for priests and his lack of sexual knowledge targeted him for sexual abuse.

Gale Leifeld, a history teacher at St. Lawrence, was Isely's spiritual adviser when Isely was a 14-year- old freshman in 1974.

One day that fall, Isely recalls, he was told to go to the teacher's office to discuss an assignment. Leifeld talked to him in a droning tone, Isely recalled, punctuating his sentences by saying, "See."

Then Leifeld began massaging Isely's shoulders, he said, and moved his hands downward. The conversation stopped when Leifeld touched Isely's genitals, Isely said, and Isely froze. Isely said he had no other recollections.

The same thing happened twice more that year, Isely said. Leifeld could not be reached for comment.

Isely said he began avoiding the priest but told no one of what happened.

"It was out of deference, fear," Isely said. "I needed him. He was the Explorer Scout leader and in charge of the crew that ran movies things many kids were involved in. He could prevent a kid who was acting out from getting kicked out of the school. Or he could see that a kid was kicked out.

"You got to understand: We were on our own up there and made what alliances we could."

Students were not allowed to smoke cigarets, and smoking could lead to expulsion, Isely said. Yet Leifeld allowed him and other students to smoke in his office, he said.

Isely said he felt indebted to Leifeld. The fear that Leifeld would tell other authorities about students smoking played a role in students not telling others about sexual advances.

Two years later, Leifeld became principal of the school.

Shortly after that, Isely says, Leifeld ordered Isely to his office. Leifeld had called Isely's parents and told them that he had smoked marijuana that summer. Isely says the allegations were trumped up and an effort to show him the kind of control Leifeld had over his life.

Again, Leifeld massaged Isely's shoulders and eventually fondled his genitals, Isely said.

Isely said Leifeld told him to leave when Isely began crying.

After graduation, Isely said, he went to a Capuchin

pre-novitiate house in Milwaukee, still believing he would become a priest. He left after seven months but continued to work as a volunteer in Capuchin projects in the central city.

Isely sought psychological therapy while attending Harvard in the 1980s.

In 1989, Isely confronted Father Kenneth Reinhart, provincial for the Capuchins, and sought money for therapy.

Reinhart presented him with a contract in which the Capuchins, the religious order that runs St. Lawrence, did not admit wrongdoing but acknowledged that Isely "had associations and experiences which may have adversely affected his health and development."

The contract acknowledges Isely's receipt of $3,640, for which Isely "releases and forever discharges the Capuchins from any and all claims . . . from his experiences or association while a student at St. Lawrence."

In the contract, dated Feb. 18, 1989, and signed by Reinhart and Isely, the parties agree to keep confidential "all facts and circumstances giving rise to this agreement."

Isely said he was in a state of high anxiety at the time and experiencing flashbacks.

Isely said he decided to come forward despite the agreement he signed because he feels the Capuchins have not taken appropriate disciplinary action in his case or in others he has since learned about.


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