Sacred Sin: Powerful Priests Involved with Vulnerable Women

By Pat Schneider
Capital Times (Madison, WI.)
June 19, 1993

These are stories of promises broken, trusts betrayed and the love life of Catholic priests.

Are priests who break their vows of celibacy with adult women simply showing human weakness or arrogantly abusing the church's power?

Today the issue of how priests should atone for illicit carnal knowledge - whether in the confessional or the courtroom - is slowly being explored by church administrators and civil judges across the country and here in Madison.

Since the mid-1980s, Church Mutual Insurance Co. of Merrill, the nation's largest insurer of churches, has handled more than 800 claims involving allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy.

Catholic church spokesmen point out that priests are only human, subject to irresistible passion, even as they invoke the holiness of church rules and their institution's special treatment under the First Amendment.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison maintains that it has dealt adequately with the misconduct of two priests who admit to having sexual relationships with women they met on the job.

After all, the diocese's lawyer says, sexual involvements by priests with adult women are illicit affairs with neither party more to blame than in any other liaison.

Not true, say the women involved. They claim that because their lovers were priests, equality in the relationship was impossible and that the involvements were by their nature abusive.

Laura Nyberg and Patty Bergen, both of Madison, have sued priests with whom they were involved - in Nyberg's case, Rev. J. Gibbs Clauder, and in Bergen's, Rev. Paul Eglsaer.

The women claim the men violated a fiduciary trust as counselors and priests.

That breach of trust, say the women, was possible partly because church officials looked the other way as the relationships, which included sexual encounters in two Madison rectories, continued for a year and more.

And the emotional and psychological damage the women say they suffered was aggravated by the church's refusal to take them seriously or provide support to them once the relationships were exposed.

"Anytime there is sexual contact between two people who aren't married to each other, it is wrong," said Don Heaney, attorney for the Madison Diocese.

Moreover, sexual contact is wrong for Roman Catholic priests because of their vow of celibacy, Heaney acknowledged.

"But in society, we don't jump to the conclusion that Partner A is abusing Partner B," Heaney said.

"That's a bunch of bull

," said psychologist Herb Shriver, who treats clergy sexual abuse survivors in a first-of-its-kind program at Rogers Hospital in Oconomowoc.

"It's a power relationship. It has nothing to do with sexuality," said Shriver.

The responsibility for enforcing the boundaries of appropriate behavior in such a power relationship always belongs to the professional - be he or she a doctor, therapist or priest, said Andrew Kane, a Milwaukee psychologist specializing in the treatment of professionals engaged in sexual misconduct and their victims.

Given the inequity inherent in such relationships, it cannot be otherwise, said Kane, founder of the Wisconsin Coalition on Sexual Exploitation by Psychotherapists and Counselors.

"A clergyman is known as the representative of God on earth. That's not an equal relationship," said Kane.

The insistence by church representatives that priests' sexual misconduct should be judged no more harshly than that of laypersons leaves Shriver mystified: "It's as if they don't even understand their own special power."

Sexual affairs are not only contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church, they are contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, said Auxiliary Bishop George Wirz of the Madison Diocese.

But other than citing its theological underpinnings, Wirz would not discuss the diocese's policy on allegations of sexual misconduct by priests.

Wirz deferred comment to newly named Bishop William Bullock, who Wirz anticipated would want to put his own mark on the policy guidelines, which were introduced by the late Bishop Cletus O'Donnell.

"I'm sure that with stable administration of the diocese, there will be refinement and publication of a policy statement," Wirz said.

Bullock, through a spokesman at his previous post in Des Moines, declined to discuss the policy until he had taken the reins in Madison.

Bullock was not available for comment this week following his installation as bishop of Madison on Tuesday.

Every complaint of sexual misconduct against a diocesan priest is investigated by a six-member committee, according to Heaney.

After the facts are determined, "we take advantage of all available kinds of treatment," from spiritual retreat to psychiatric treatment, said Heaney.

Priests targeted by such allegations often are removed from their parishes, Heaney said.

"The mere fact that the allegation is floating around makes it hard for him to do all the things Christ instituted the church to do," said Heaney.

Both Clauder, previously a chaplain at Meriter Hospital living at St. Bernard's parish, and Eglsaer, a parish priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace, were sent on retreat and transferred from their Madison assignments after church officials learned of their illicit relationships.

The most severe discipline is defrocking, or suspension of their "faculties," the right to perform priestly duties, said Heaney.

Heaney was unequivocal on one aspect of diocesan policy. "It is our very, very strong policy that any priest engaged in pedophilia will have his faculties pulled immediately," he said.

The picture is not so clear in cases involving sexual relationships between priests and other adults, Heaney said.

"Sometimes it's very hard to figure out who is the seducer and who is the seducee," he said.

In response to a scandalous onslaught of revelations of child sexual abuse by priests, followed by documentation of the Catholic Church's past practice of protecting the perpetrators, many dioceses scrambled to set up mechanisms to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.

A typical policy, in effect in the Des Moines Diocese under Bishop Bullock since 1988, calls for immediate investigation of reports of sexual misconduct and cooperation with law enforcement authorities.

The policy specifically applies to the abuse of children and other "persons at risk," but who that might be is not stated.

The definition ought to include anyone with whom a priest has a pastoral relationship, says Kane.

Clergymen are entrusted not only with the emotional health of their parishioners, but with their spiritual health as well, Kane said.

Nyberg said her sexual involvement with Clauder began about a year after he counseled her at Meriter Hospital after she lost a second baby to miscarriage - losses that she said pierced her to her core.

The relationship between the two, Nyberg realizes today, was animated by sexual energy from the start. But she said it was only after months of friendship - punctuated by such sexual overtures as telephone calls asking if she was cleaning house in the nude - that she was able to recognize the sexual content of their relationship.

"I didn't know what to do with it," she said.

Nyberg acknowledges that by the time she and Clauder became intimate in 1990, she wanted it to be so. "I wanted our relationship to be real," she said.

For the next year, the two met for sexual encounters about once a week, usually in Clauder's room at St. Bernard's.

Nyberg, now 27, said that she was drawn to Clauder because he respected the opinions she expressed during their frequent talks about politics and religion.

Clauder exercised tremendous sway over her self-esteem by bestowing attention and praise, and then withdrawing it, she said.

"He told me all those things I wanted to hear, but also took them away," she said of Clauder, who is 19 years her senior.

Nyberg said it was the total secrecy of their relationship, and a growing loss of her sense of self, that made her realize that the relationship was harmful.

One day she heard an incest survivor speak of her experiences. "I couldn't get over the incredible similarity between her story and the way I was feeling," Nyberg said.

Nyberg, whose marriage has survived revelation of her relationship with Clauder, said that she had two meetings with the late Bishop O'Donnell in 1991.

At one meeting, O'Donnell destroyed a letter in which Clauder admitted to the relationship, she said. "He tore up the letter and threw it away," said Nyberg, who added that O'Donnell "treated it like it was an affair."

That's just what it was, says Madison attorney Richard Auerbach, who is representing Clauder.

"It wasn't the relationship that bothered her, but the ending of the relationship," said Auerbach, who claimed that Nyberg was enraged by Clauder's refusal to leave the priesthood and marry her.

Auerbach said Clauder denies he had a counseling relationship with Nyberg. "He was consoling her in the hospital, not counseling her," said Auerbach.

After the relationship soured, Nyberg made increasing demands for money from the diocese, Auerbach said, finally asking for more than $ 100,000 to settle her claim out of court.

"She was willing in exchange for money to keep it confidential. This type of publicity is embarrassing to the diocese, it's embarrassing to my client. But we will not be blackmailed with threats of publicity," said Auerbach.

"Once any diocese gets the reputation for paying out large sums of money to avoid publicity, they're sitting ducks," Auerbach said.

Nyberg maintains that it's important for victims to take legal action, "even if they don't win, because then it's on the record."

Psychologist Kane said a lawsuit provides the culture's only way of compensating someone unfairly damaged by another's actions.

"We can't regenerate the things destroyed. The only thing we can do is give money to compensate," said Kane. A successful suit also is a way that the community recognizes a victim was not at fault, he said.

Contrary to Auerbach's claim, several women involved in such relationships said silence was a term of settlement required by the clergyman or church officials.

"Silence is the key," psychologist Shriver said, explaining his view on how religious institutions manage to evade responsibility for damage done by their clergymen.

Bergen said she was deeply troubled by the secrecy surrounding her relationship with Eglsaer.

"It was this big secret that was starting to eat up a hole inside me," she testified in a pretrial deposition. "I just started to feel like a really bad person."

Bergen, now 36, met Eglsaer in 1987 when she was hired to coordinate a youth group at Queen of Peace that Eglsaer was to oversee.

Their physical relationship began in 1989, shortly after the birth of her second child.

As Bergen recalled it, their first kiss took place as the two sat before the fireplace at the rectory.

"I was crying for a couple of hours and trying to figure out what I had done to make God so angry with me" that her relationship with her husband was so troubled, said Bergen.

A sexual relationship soon began and continued for about two years, the couple trysting most often in Eglsaer's room after the weekly Sunday evening meetings of the youth group.

The teenagers in the group sensed that she and Eglsaer had a relationship, Bergen said, and would say things like: "Oh, Paul likes you."

"Where were you guys?" the kids persisted after a youth group sleep-over at the church, during which the two disappeared into the confessional room, where they were sexual, said Bergen.

Eglsaer, now 37, had a ready definition of his responsibility to parishioners during a pretrial deposition last year.

His duty, he said, "was to foster and further their spiritual growth, help them to come to an understanding of themselves as children of God as loved by God and of their calling to ministry in various ways within the church."

He seemed less certain of the moral repercussions of his relationship with Bergen, saying he could not say for certain when it became adulterous. "I don't view things as black and white . . . I knew that we were on shaky ground."

"I was motivated by a desire for personal gratification and satisfaction for both her and myself, and a desire to experience mutual affection," Eglsaer said of his involvement.

Eglsaer has had no training as a psychologist and said he repeatedly told Bergen they were talking only as friends.

But because he reportedly told Bergen he was knowledgeable about a psychiatric disorder with which she had been diagnosed, Dane County Circuit Judge Michael Nowakowski ruled last month that Eglsaer could be seen as presenting to Bergen that he was performing psychotherapy.

That leaves Eglsaer open to a claim of sexual exploitation by a therapist, under a state law that specifically says clergy can be held liable for injuries caused by sexual contact during counseling, depending on the kind of "therapy" provided.

George Steil Jr., the Janesville attorney representing Eglsaer, admits that the legal definition of psychotherapy is slippery, but said expert witnesses will explain it at trial and Bergen won't be able to prove it applies to Eglsaer.

Despite documentation that Eglsaer had undergone drug treatment and initially was granted only probational admission to the seminary in 1987 because of concerns about his psychological stability and sexuality, Nowakowski dismissed claims against the diocese and the parish, saying officials could not have been expected to anticipate that Eglsaer was likely to abuse his position.

Nowakowski's ruling "potentially establishes the church as immune from what its priests do," said Susan Rosenberg, a Milwaukee attorney representing Bergen. She contends that what passed between Eglsaer and Bergen definitely included psychotherapy.

Nowakowski said that, in recognition of the First Amendment separation of church and state, the court had to avoid excessive intrusion into the selection, training and supervision of clergy.

"I am not persuaded that a ruling of absolute immunity in this arena is constitutionally compelled," said Nowakowski. A case that there was evidence of sufficiently similar behavior by Eglsaer in the past to warrant court intrusion into the affairs of the church simply had not been made, he said.

Preserving that separation of church and state is one reason that the church must police itself, said diocesan attorney Heaney.

The church's immunity lets priests avoid being held accountable, countered Peter Eisley, who was assaulted by a priest as a child and now works with psychologist Shriver at Rogers Hospital.

"All their records are confidential, so they don't need to follow ethical or treatment guidelines" at unlicensed church-run treatment facilities, said Eisley. "No one knows what, if any, treatment an offending priest received.

"Power needs to be held accountable," he said.

For instance, since church officials are not required to report suspected instances of child abuse, they can blind themselves to violations, said Eisley.

Eisley also supports including victim advocates on the church investigative team. "They're not letting the victims inside any of the procedures to deal with these problems," he said.

The church, Eisley says, has not earned the trust of its members to confront its problems. "They've not only let down the victims, they've let down Catholics and they've let down offenders" who need help, said Eisley.

He is not alone in his deep distrust. A Chicago advocate urged victims of clergy earlier this month to bypass church procedures completely.

Church investigations are too often whitewashes, said Barbara Blaine. "Priests can no more investigate themselves than can doctors or lawyers."

Some cite a recent trend to include persons outside the church in diocesan discipline panels.

Is Madison keeping up with its six-person, church-sponsored investigative arm?

It's hard to say. Neither Bishop Wirz nor attorney Heaney would reveal who is on the committee.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.