Priest's Book Rebuts Allegations

By Brian Bridgeford and George Althoff
Baraboo News Republic

October 18, 2008

BARABOO - The Rev. Gerald Vosen has vivid recollection of that September day in 2003. It was a "bright and glorious fall day" and he had just conducted a funeral Mass for Chappie Fox, one of the founding fathers of Circus World Museum. A procession of horse-drawn circus wagons carrying Fox's remains had left St. Joseph's Catholic Church headed to the cemetery, while the strains of "Amazing Grace" emanated from a calliope.

Vosen had returned to the Baraboo church's rectory to prepare for another funeral the next day. About 2:30 p.m., the phone rang, It was Bishop Robert Morlino of the Diocese of Madison. Morlino had just come from a hearing at the state capitol at which an allegation of child sexual abuse had been leveled against Vosen.

By the next morning, Vosen was gone from St. Joseph's parish. Using words from singer Don McLean, Vosen says that day - Sept. 18, 2003 - was "the day the music died."

Unfounded allegation

Vosen outlines his case of what he feels are unfounded allegations in a book of homilies he has published. In "Pick a Number: Stories of Faith," chapter 51 tells of his tribulations after being removed from his beloved role as pastor at St. Joseph.

The allegation that led to Vosen's removal was made at the state hearing by the sister of the alleged victim. Just four days after the accusation, the alleged victim publicly denied that he was ever abused by Vosen.

According to Vosen's book, the alleged victim was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying, "I don't know where she (his sister) would come up with this and why she asked me about (Vosen) and if he had ever done anything to me. I told her no way. That is why I can't understand why she would say such a thing."

Despite that denial, Vosen was not reinstated. The fact that the denial was not ever reported in the Catholic Herald Citizen, the diocesan newspaper, was telling.

"It was the first of many indications that the church establishment has come to believe that if you are accused, you must be guilty, and it would never help you clear your name," Vosen writes in his book.

"Seven accusers, three victims"

On Feb. 13, 2004, nearly five months after "the day the music died," Morlino suspended Vosen. Vosen recalls entering the meeting with slim hope of returning to his parish. It was not to be.

Writes Vosen: "With what appeared to be great glee and authority, the bishop said, "We have seven accusers and three victims.""

"The wind was totally knocked out of me and I responded, "Seven accusers! Who are they?""

"The bishop answered, "I can't tell you that.""

Fighting back

Vosen was able to figure out who the three accusers were. One stemmed from when Vosen was as pastor at St. John Vianney Parish in Janesville. Another was the Madison man who had already denied being abused. The third was, in Vosen's words, a "so-called nut case" involving a man who never showed up for a hearing against Vosen. Believing that the Janesville case was the one that would be turned over to the Vatican for its review, Vosen decided to fight back. He filed a civil suit against the alleged victim in that case, claiming defamation of character. After a four-day trial in August 2004, a jury decided Vosen had not met the burden of proof in claiming he had been defamed.

But three of the jurors in the case were later quoted as saying there was "insufficient evidence (against Vosen) for a criminal trial." And the judge was quoted as saying, "There is ample evidence that these actions (Vosen was accused of) never occurred."

Those statements apparently did not resonate with church officials, because the case against Vosen remained on track.

No help from church officials

Vosen paints a picture of Morlino and other church officials who are unwilling to give him detailed answers about the charges he faces or afford him the presumption of innocence. In August of 2007, a panel of three church judges in Madison ruled against him on the abuse allegations.

"They ruled to them it was evident there could have been sexual abuse, and we immediately appealed to the Vatican," Vosen said in an interview with the Baraboo News Republic.

No criminal charges or law suits for damages were ever brought against Vosen, though he says the statute of limitations would have allowed one of the alleged victims to take his abuse allegations to court.

Since filing his appeal with the Vatican, Vosen said he has not gotten any response from the church.

Vosen said he is suffering because of mistakes the church as an institution has made.

"Undoubtably, there was sexual abuse within the ranks of the priesthood and the hierarchy of the church mishandled that from the beginning," he said. "They need to show they are not weak, they are strong in this area of sexual abuse, and that's good.

"I believe very strongly I never sexually abused anybody. I guess that's why I've been able to hold my life together, to be at peace. (I) try not to be angry, because that doesn't do any good."

The church responds

Brent King, spokesman for the Madison Diocese, said experts in church law who could speak in detail about Vosen's case were not available to comment this week. Even if they were available, confidentiality rules of the church might prevent them from releasing details of a case that has not been resolved, he said.

Vosen is still considered a priest at this time, King said in a telephone interview with the paper. However, he is suspended from duties as the pastor of a church.

"Father Vosen remains on a leave of absence pending the final outcome of his case, which as been referred to Rome on appeal," he wrote in an e-mailed statement. "All we know of the current status of the case is that it has been accepted by the court in Rome.

"That is all the information I have regarding Father Vosen at this time."

King defended Morlino's actions as being consistent with procedures the Catholic Church has taken to make sure allegations of sexual abuse are dealt with and children are protected. In a statement sent to the News Republic on Friday, he wrote:

"With the passage of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, the bishops of the United States have clearly stated the ways in which the church will do everything it possibly can do to keep every child and young person safe in our parishes and schools, around the country and in the Diocese of Madison. In addition to the proactive measures to keep abuse from ever happening, the bishops have also agreed on how to address all allegations of abuse, regardless of when the allegation is/was made. This case is being, and has been, dealt with according to the charter and norms agreed upon by the bishops of the United States."

Priest without a parish

More than five years after that shocking day in September 2003, Vosen is a man in limbo.

Over that period, he has not been allowed to say Mass or publicly participate in any of the church's sacraments. In that time, two of his siblings - brothers Francis and Dan - died and Vosen was not allowed to pray the Mass at their funerals.

In April, Vosen turns 75, the mandatory age for retirement from the active priesthood. He does not expect that he will ever again be the pastor of St. Joseph or any other church. But he does hope that one day his name will be cleared and he might be able to fill in for priests who are on vacation.

"I'm still a priest and in my eyes, I will always be a priest," Vosen said.

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