Sheboygan Priest Works to Help Abuse Victims Heal

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 23, 2010

In his years of reviewing clergy sex abuse cases for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Father James Connell had never truly contemplated the life of a victim - until one afternoon last October, sitting in the parking lot of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

He awoke that morning to learn he would be the subject of a news conference on the steps of the Milwaukee cathedral called by clergy victims criticizing his role in the handling of a notorious abuse case.

Deeply troubled, Connell sat in his car after visiting a parishioner and asked himself for the first time: "What if I'd been a victim? Where would I be today if I'd been molested by a priest as a child?"

Those questions and the epiphany that followed would inspire Connell to pull together fellow priests in what may be a first-of-its-kind, grass-roots effort to pastor victims and help parishes heal the wounds and deep divisions caused by the abuse scandal.

"I asked the questions, and in an instant, my agony was dissipated," said Connell, a Sheboygan priest and vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Father James Connell, the vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, decided to focus on helping abuse victims after deep reflection.

He would spend the next few months seeking out victims, including members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, vilified by some members of the church.

Talking about it

"As I drove back to Sheboygan, praying the rosary, I found it just stayed with me," he said. "I am different as a result of that."

Connell, 67, drew praise and criticism last week for issuing a public letter suggesting that the way the Diocese of La Crosse evaluates child sex abuse cases could be putting young people at risk. It came, he said, after months of trying to get local and national church authorities to change the policy.

Those who know Connell said the letter, and the priest group he has formed, were born of a deep soul-searching and a desire to do what's right.

"You can't fault him. He's just trying to speak from an informed conscience, which is part of our teaching as a church," said Father Tim Kitzke, pastor of Milwaukee's Three Holy Women and Old St. Mary's parishes, and one of the nine priests working with Connell to reach out to victims.

"The Gospel of St. John talks about the truth setting you free," Kitzke said. "We have to start living according to the truth, and Father Jim showed us not to be afraid of it."

Over the last several months, the priests have been meeting with victims and holding parish prayer vigils that draw as many as 80 people. The idea, endorsed by Archbishop Jerome Listecki, is to learn from victims what they need to heal and to create an environment where everyone in a parish - victims and non-victims alike - can talk about their own hurt and resentment.

"It has become such a polarizing issue," said Amy Peterson, the Milwaukee Archdiocese's victim assistance coordinator who has served as a resource for the priests.

"People want to point fingers - they blame SNAP or the bishops - so we've not been able to have the conversations we need to get into the healing," she said. "And that includes priests."

The outreach is deeply personal for Father Jeff Haines of St. Frances Cabrini parish in West Bend. Members continue to struggle eight years after learning that their longtime pastor, the late Father Edmund Haen, had repeatedly abused at least one boy in the 1940s.

"There's a need to heal this parish," Haines said. "That's what touched me about Jim's effort. I know there are people in this community hurt by Father Haen longing to reach out."

Lending an ear

Peterson, who works with victim advocates around the country, said Connell's group may be a first of its kind.

While individual priests have worked to reach out to victims in Wisconsin and elsewhere, she said, "I don't know of any other group of diocesan priests who have gathered together to journey with survivors."

It is long overdue, said Carol, whose 18-year-old son killed himself in 1986, after, the family and others believe, he was molested by a popular priest who'd abused other boys at his school. (Her last name is not being used, at her request.)

Carol, who has met with the newly formed group of priests, said she wept last week when she read Connell's open letter about his concerns for the Diocese of La Crosse. In it, he speaks of his epiphany that October afternoon, of the anguish of victims and his desire to see them and the Catholic Church healed.

"He gets it," said Carol, who has been asking for years why parish priests weren't doing more to address the concerns of sex abuse victims. "I have the utmost respect for Father Connell. My prayers were answered."


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