Out of the Shadows

By Ann McGlynn
Quad-City Times
August 6, 2005

He grew up a block-and-a-half away from Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, the oldest of 12 from a Catholic family in a neighborhood of Catholic households.

He was baptized and confirmed at the church, served as an altar boy and attended the parochial school there. He began early in his childhood to dream of becoming a priest.

The reality is that Michl Uhde, now 55, is in his third marriage.

He works in sales.

And he is the victim of a pedophile priest, the Davenport resident said.

Uhde is the second person to file a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Davenport since its settled with 37 sexual abuse victims for $9 million in October.

His lawsuit states that he suffered sexual and physical abuse for years at the hands of Monsignor Thomas Feeney, a priest who rose to the post of vicar general, or second-in-command of the diocese, before dying in 1981.

Feeney fondled Uhde, beginning when he was 7 years old, the lawsuit states. It ended in the seventh grade when he told his mother and she reported it, Uhde said. But he believes others suffered abuse at Feeney's hand, too.

"It's not an easy thing to do, put your name out there as a victim of a pedophile," Uhde said. "I am hoping the other people abused will recognize my name and know they are not alone."

Where it began

Down a winding road on Credit Island, Monsignor Feeney would take a young Michl Uhde on what the clergyman described to parents Don and Marian Uhde as bird watching excursions.

On the secluded, wooded paths, Feeney fondled the boy over and over again.

The abuse went on for about five years at Credit Island and other places before the youngster let his mother know what was happening, Uhde said. He told her one evening that he could not sit down for supper at the family's large table because Feeney had given him a "pink belly," slapping him on the stomach until it turned red.

"As a Catholic kid, you did not say anything bad about a priest," Uhde said. "But his abuse had escalated to a point where it became violent."

"Thankfully, the alarm bells went off with Mom."

His mother told her priest, then her doctor. The abuse stopped. Monsignor Feeney never called about going bird watching again.

"I was just sick," said Marian Uhde, who raised her children in the large wooden house at 922 Farnam St., Davenport.

Mike Uhde graduated from eighth grade at Sacred Heart and went on to graduate from Assumption High School in 1968. He entered seminary at St. Ambrose College, also in Davenport, on the path to becoming a priest.

It was there, as a young adult, that he encountered abuse by two more priests, Uhde said. One, Lawrence Soens, eventually became the bishop of the Sioux City Diocese.

After Uhde confided in then-Bishop Gerald O'Keefe of the Davenport Diocese about what was happening, Soens kicked him out of seminary, Uhde said.

It was on that day that the 20-year-old student attended his last Catholic Mass, except for funerals, weddings and other family events.

That changed a week ago today.

Standing up

His return to church began with a phone call March 10. It came from a man who also had been abused by priests and led to a meeting with Bishop William Franklin.

The two men met with Franklin on April 2. At a second meeting in May, Uhde and the other man detailed the abuse once more for three leaders of the Davenport Diocese.

The diocese declined Uhde's request to investigate his allegations against Feeney. The priest died more than 20 years ago, and such an investigation would go beyond the agreement reached by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to court documents and diocesan attorney Rand Wonio.

The diocese's first job is to believe victims who come forward with an abuse complaint, Wonio said. The second is to provide support.

"That these people were abused is a terrible wrong," he said. But, Wonio added, "it's inappropriate to perform an investigation."

Uhde does not accept the diocese's refusal to investigate his claims. He wants full disclosure about why Feeney and others were promoted despite diocesan knowledge of sexual abuse. He wants the diocese to publicly disclose the names of all priests credibly accused of abusing children. He wants the Catholic Church to lobby the state Legislature to reform the statute of limitations for criminal sex acts.

Uhde decided to file a lawsuit. The mother who reported the abuse four decades ago supports him.

"I want it stopped," said the 78-year-old woman who attends Mass daily at Holy Family Catholic Church in Davenport.

'Finding strength'

Last Saturday, Mike Uhde walked into a Catholic Mass for the first time since he left seminary 35 years ago.

The priest leading the service at St. Mary's Church in Tipton, Iowa, was David Hitch. He ministers to those victimized by priests, in part, he said, because his own brother suffered at the hands of defrocked priest James Janssen.

Hitch went with Uhde to the meetings with diocese officials during April and May.

"I see Mike as a person who is finding some strength now. He's wanting to do something constructive and helpful," Hitch said, adding that helping Uhde and other abuse victims "is almost like a second calling, renewal of that first calling to the priesthood. This is something I can't not do. If I turn my back and walk away from this, my life has been a failure, my life as a priest hasn't stood for anything. God has called me to this ministry."

Uhde's hope is that the impact of sexual abuse by priests will be better understood through his lawsuit.

"We will not settle for silence," he said.