Priest Urges All Clergy to Report Abuse

By Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal
December 24, 1992

A Capuchin priest from Racine says he will announce at Christmas mass that he now considers himself among those who are commanded to report suspicions of child sexual abuse to legal authorities. "I call upon all Catholic priests, bishops, religious sisters and brothers to publicly announce at masses this Christmas that they too consider themselves mandatory reporters," Father Michael Sullivan said at a news conference Wednesday.

"I call upon all the people of God to take action to see to it that all abuse stops in our church. Let your leaders hear your voice. We must do our part . . . Our church which for many of us is our home must become a safe place again."

Sullivan essentially put his superiors on notice that he would go to secular authorities, regardless of instructions from his order, in cases of suspected sexual abuse of children.

State law does not now require clergy to report such suspicions. It does require reporting by teachers, school administrators, social workers, doctors and dentists.

The Capuchins asked all of the order's friars to sign a Dec. 10 letter, in which they promise to report any case of abuse to the leadership so it could determine how the case could be handled. The letter says the responsibility for investigating and handling such matters rests with the provincial and priests who govern the province.

Sullivan was one five professionals who appeared on behalf of Project Samuel, an organization formed by a group of men who say they were abused by Capuchin priests or brothers.

On Sunday, The Journal reported the stories of eight former students who said they were abused by priests or brothers while attending St. Lawrence Seminary high school at Mount Calvary in Fond du Lac County. Several of the men said the abuse was reported to school officials and to province leaders, but to no avail.

Wednesday's news conference was held at Plymouth United Church of Christ, 2717 E. Hampshire St. Others taking part were Michael J. Fenlon, a St. Lawrence alumnus who is an assistant dean at New York City's Columbia University; State Rep. Margaret Krusick (D-Milwaukee); Elizabeth Sirles, associate professor in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's School of Social Welfare; and Rock Pledl of Milwaukee, a lawyer representing some of the former students.

The Rev. Mary Ann Neevel, pastor of Plymouth, said she offered her church as a place for the news conference because she believes churches are obligated to offer safety to whomever needs it.

Sullivan said pedophilia and addiction to power were a cancer growing in the Catholic Church. He would not respond to questions and did not offer evidence of cases beyond those that have reached the media. And he emphasized that he was speaking for himself, not for his order.

His mass Friday will be at the mother house of the Racine Dominicans, an order of nuns. It is not a public service.

"As a church, we must always be on the side of the victims," he said. "The cause of the victims must be the cause of the church, because it is the cause of Christ himself the victim of unspeakable horror and violence.

"If we as the church would know Jesus Christ, love him and serve him, then we must know him in the poor, the broken, the victimized and the oppressed. We must not turn away from them, refusing to see and acknowledge their pain. We must listen and learn from them. We must stand with them or we will lose our soul."

Fenlon read statements on behalf of the victims, their parents and alumni.

"We do not wish to appear before you because, having made public our memories, we wish to keep private our bodies," the victims' statement read. "We also know that our perpetrators want us to display before you the bodies they violated. They know this will re-traumatize us."

Fenlon said the victims were confident that Pope John Paul would meet with them and order the American bishops to remove all sex offenders from the priesthood.

Fenlon spoke for parents in addressing the betrayal many have felt. He said the parents were calling on the Capuchins to remove from office all those who failed to act.

He described alumni as angry, sad and disillusioned. They want the Capuchins to rescind the Dec. 10 letter to friars.

Both the parents' and alumni statements asked whether, if these things were not done before the school reopened on Jan. 3, the safety of the students could be assured.

Krusick discussed a bill she said would be introduced next month to eliminate the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual abusers of children. It would be the toughest law in the country, and would require clergy to report sex abuse suspicions, she said. It would not affect past criminal cases, but would apply to civil lawsuits involving allegations from years past, she said.

Sirles said she would be working with Project Samuel, and called on the Catholic Church to do the same. She is a member of St. Robert Catholic Church in Shorewood, where Father Gale Leifeld, former rector at St. Lawrence, worked for several years after it was known that former students had accused him of abuse.

Pledl described himself as a Catholic who attends a Capuchin parish. He said the alleged cover-up of purported sexual abuse complaints was not just something from years gone by, and cited the Dec. 10 letter to friars as an apparent attempt to silence those who knew of misconduct.


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