Retired Priest's Abuses Revealed

By Elizabeth Putnam
Marshfield News-Herald [Wisconsin]
August 27, 2004

An elderly priest is expected to be barred from performing any priestly duties after the Diocese of La Crosse confirmed a report that he had sexually abused a girl more than 30 years ago.

The priest, the Rev. Raymond H. Bornbach, is now retired and living in Marshfield. Bornbach, 89, who occasionally ministers to patients at Saint Joseph's Hospital in Marshfield, declined to comment Thursday.

In an Aug. 16 letter the diocesan administrator, the Rev. Richard Gilles, told Brenda Varga, now 42 and living in Plover, that her complaint against Bornbach "has been sufficiently confirmed." Varga had accused Bornbach of molesting her repeatedly in 1971.

Attorney J. David Rice, who represents Bornbach, said Bornbach had received the same letter from Gilles and that the priest had always denied Varga's claims of abuse.

"The situation is devastating to him. He is not in the best of health, with heart problems," Rice said.

The La Crosse Diocese's sexual abuse policy calls for abusive priests to be removed permanently from the ministry and prohibited from celebrating Mass in public, wearing clerical garb or presenting themselves in public as priests.

The Rev. Larry Dunklee, director of the diocesan office of clergy, said that although privacy concerns precluded him from discussing the case, the diocese would follow its own policy and the policies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Gilles did not return repeated phone calls from the Daily Herald.

Sharon Kostroski, vice president of quality and safety at Saint Joseph's Hospital, said the hospital had not received any reports about Bornbach from the diocese. She did not have a record of Bornbach's visits and said, "We'd expect him to abide by what the diocese decides."

Varga first approached the diocese in a January 2003 letter to then-Bishop Raymond Burke, who has since become archbishop of St. Louis. After more than a year of communication with the diocese, a meeting with Burke and a rehashing of her story for the lay advisory board that reviews sexual abuse allegations for the diocese, Varga said this week that she was satisfied with the outcome.

Under the diocesan rules, Varga also may be eligible for financial compensation. Varga said, however, that she had not been told whether she would be reimbursed for the cost of therapy related to the abuse.

Victim's story

Varga was 9 years old in 1971 and living in the Stevens Point area when her parents befriended Bornbach after he presided at a family wedding at St. Michael's Church in Hewitt.

The priest eventually asked to spend time with Varga and her sister, who is a year younger.

Bornbach would take the girls for drives during which they would stop at waysides. Once, Varga recalled, they stopped at Rib Mountain State Park.

During their stops, Bornbach would tell Varga's sister to wait outside the car and then kiss Varga on the mouth and rub her legs and thighs.

"I remember he smoked cigars," she said this week.

The abuse continued for about a year. Varga did not recall this week how many drives she and her sister took with the priest.

The last instance of abuse took place in the rectory adjacent to the church in Hewitt. Bornbach led Varga to an upstairs bedroom after promising to show her some jewelry. Her younger sister waited downstairs.

"He asked to see my burns," said Varga, whose left arm and side had been scalded when she was younger.

She doesn't remember whether she or Bornbach unbuttoned her dress, but the priest laid the naked 9-year-old on a bed and molested her.

"Then the housekeeper stepped into the bedroom. That is the last time I remember anything happening," Varga said. "The housekeeper says she doesn't remember seeing anything."

After the incident, Varga said, Bornbach bought her a bike.

Varga, who did not tell her parents about the abuse until she was 18 or 19, said she sought counseling in 1997.

"I was having problems trusting anyone with my children. I wouldn't leave them alone," Varga said. Her relationship with her husband was suffering, as well.

Her therapist recommended that Varga tell her story in a letter to the Diocese of La Crosse.

The diocese appointed a liaison to the case within days of receiving the letter in January 2003.

As the months dragged on, Varga requested a meeting with the diocese's sexual abuse lay advisory board but received no response. She eventually began calling individual members of the advisory board and requesting a meeting with Burke.

Varga and her husband finally met with Burke this January, shortly before he left for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Burke, Varga said, told her he had never spoken with Bornbach.

That was Varga's last contact with the diocese for months.

In June, Bornbach called Varga and asked to meet. They spoke for about 20 minutes on the phone, Varga said, and he asked several questions about her life now. Varga said she would think about meeting with him.

When Bornbach called again a few days, Varga declined to meet with him.

In July, the advisory board met with Bornbach.

The letter from the diocese arrived more than a month later.

Another case

Varga's case is the second confirmed case of child sexual abuse in the La Crosse Diocese that has been reported by the media.

The first case that became public knowledge involved Bruce E. Ball, a Colby priest who was convicted on child molestation charges in 1992 and served five years in prison. Two victims received payments totaling $66,125 from the diocese's insurance company. Ball died in February 2003 at age 55.

Ball was not the only abusive priest in the diocese, however.

In January, the diocese reported that 58 accusations of child molestation against 28 priests had been received from 1950 to 2002. Thirty-one claims, involving 10 priests, had been confirmed.

That report coincided with the release of results of a September 2003 audit by the U.S. bishops conference that found that the La Crosse diocese had not fully complied with national guidelines for dealing with abusive priests.

Finding closure

Varga said the letter from the diocese had provided her some piece of mind.

She now would like to meet with Bornbach to "try to forgive him."

"I need to hear him say 'I'm sorry,'" Varga said.

Varga has turned for support to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, and has befriended the group's Midwest director, Peter Isely, who is based in Milwaukee.

Most victims of sexual abuse by priests do not come forward, let alone push as far as Varga did, Isely said.

"There were times that I wanted to quit ... but I knew the truth was on my side," Varga said.


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