Man Looking for Church Justice

By Mason Kerns
The Daily Iowan [Iowa]
April 7, 2006

As a 9-year-old at Holy Trinity Sacred Heart school in Dubuque, Steve Theisen said Catholic nun Sister Mary Philip, the teacher of his fourth-grade class, would frequently ask him to stay after the bell.

"At first, she said she was going to teach me how the Eskimos kiss, and she'd rub noses with me," the 54-year-old said during a Concerned Catholics of the Davenport Diocese meeting last week in Iowa City. "Later, she showed me how the Americans kiss, and then the French, waiting a few weeks in between each to see if I'd tell anybody."

As the state director for the support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Theisen is working with groups, such as Concerned Catholics, to not only counsel clerical-abuse victims but prevent further incidents and demand accountability from the Catholic Church. Both Theisen and the Concerned Catholics expressed disillusionment with what they deem the church's opaque bureaucratic tendencies and reluctance to reveal its abusive clergy.

Theisen was one of numerous clerical-abuse advocates who at the Concerned Catholics meeting on March 31 openly decried what they labeled the church's non-forthcoming attitude regarding Bishop Lawrence Soens. Soens was accused in June 2005 of making wrongful sexual contact with a student at Iowa City Regina, where he served as principal from 1959-67.

Theisen said after Sister Mary Philip - now known as Sister Josephine Schmitz - began keeping him after class, other students and the Sacred Heart faculty thought "nice little Stevie was just helping the nun."

Not quite, Theisen said.

"After kissing, it'd move from after school to Saturdays and the summer months," he said. "She'd get on top of me, or put me on top of her, kissing or fondling. There was never any disrobing or touching of the genitals, so it couldn't be considered sex."

Theisen said the acts scared him, and he thought he was to blame, a notion reinforced at home.

"Of course, my parents told me to always do what the priests and nuns do," he said. "Can you imagine 40 years ago what'd they'd do to a kid accusing a nun of sexual abuse? They'd probably medicate him."

Several attempts to reach Schmitz, unlisted and now retired, were immediately unsuccessful.

Theisen, who has been married for "32 wonderful years," with three children, said years of therapy helped him take the blame off himself, while lessening his anxiety, shame, and anger. But, he's far from content with how his allegations were handled.

Theisen said he wasn't afforded a proper hearing from the Catholic Church until January 2004, shortly after the Archdiocese of Dubuque created its Review Board for the Protection of Minors, in part to investigate clerical abuse. As part of the review process, the board hired an investigator to determine the credibility of Theisen's testimony.

"They were supposed to give me someone with some experience as an investigator, according to policy, but, instead, they gave me a member of a Catholic Church in the [Dubuque] Diocese," he said. "I asked him, 'Have you ever even spoken to a pedophile, to know what one's like?' He hadn't, and I told the board to never pull this shit on anyone again."

Dubuque County Assistant Attorney Chris Corken, the spokeswoman for the 12-member review board, said while the board regrets not hiring someone from outside the archdiocese to conduct the investigation, its choice was otherwise qualified.

The board hired a second person to investigate, she said, but he also brought up conflict-of-interest issues. The new investigator was a Dubuque County law-enforcement officer and had previously worked with Theisen when he was a Dubuque police officer.

Still, Theisen was upset because the board, upon being told by the second investigator his story was credible, ruled against him.

"We determined the allegations to be 'non-substantial,' meaning there wasn't enough information to move forward," said Corken, who added she's prosecuted sex offenders as a county attorney.

Dorothy Whiston, the Concerned Catholics coordinator, said she believes every word of Theisen's story.

"As a counselor with the church, I've heard so many claims of sexual abuse, and, here, there's no sign that it's not the case," she said. "[Theisen] devotes a huge amount of energy into helping other victims, but the church is still trying to carry on what's becoming a massive institutional cover-up."

E-mail DI reporter Mason Kerns at:


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