SNAP Accuses Green Bay Diocese of Destroying Evidence

By Paul Srubas
The Press-Gazette
December 22, 2010

[letter to the U.S. Attorney's office]

[statement from the Green Bay diocese]

A group that represents victims of clergy sex abuse has accused the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay of embarking on a policy to destroy potential evidence in clergy abuse cases.

"It's an intentional, deliberate act of destroying what's in the file," said Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "This is a potential record of crimes committed against us, and criminal evidence, and it's evidence of potential fraud, which is the concealment or transference of clerics" guilty of sexual abuse.

The diocese denied the accusations on Tuesday, saying it continues to be cooperative with victims of sex abuse cases but has been following a records management policy that has been in place for the last four years.

SNAP issued a press release on Tuesday accusing the diocese of destroying personnel records and other documents that would aid in the investigation of sexually abusive priests.

The group based its accusations on recent court testimony given by the Rev. James Doerfler, a top diocesan official. The group quoted Doerfler as saying former diocesan leader Bishop David Zubik issued orders in 2007 to destroy records pertaining to pedophile priests.

Doerfler said Zubik's orders were based on the diocese's new records-management policy, which went into effect at about the same time that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that victims of priest abuse can sue under fraud statutes outside the normal six-year statute of limitations, Isely said.

"What was wrong with the policy up to this point?" Isely asked, adding that the policy change clearly came into effect as the diocese rushed to protect itself from lawsuits under the new Supreme Court ruling.

Todd and Troy Merryfield of St. Paul have filed such a suit in Outagamie County Circuit Court. Now they are asking the judge in the case to issue an order forbidding further destruction of church records. Former parish priest John Patrick Feeney abused the Merryfield boys in 1978 when they were parishioners at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Freedom. Feeney is serving a 15-year year prison term on sexual abuse convictions.

The Merryfields are suing the diocese for fraud, for allegedly failing to inform St. Nicholas church of Feeney's past, including his church-ordered sexual abuse counseling.

Todd Merryfield stood Tuesday afternoon with representatives of SNAP in a press conference at the federal courthouse in Green Bay to condemn the diocese's actions involving diocesan records.

Also with them was Sheboygan priest James Connell, who, as a member of the Milwaukee archdiocese's sexual abuse review board, has condemned the Green Bay diocese's new records-management policy.

Deacon Tim Reilly, the diocese's director of administration, said SNAP's accusations are wrong.

He said the diocese's new policy calls for destruction of personnel records only in the cases of priests who have been dead for a year or more, and in no case are the records destroyed if they concern pending court cases.

The diocese's new policy was enacted in 2006 — a year before the Supreme Court decision allowing fraud cases — after five years of study, Reilly said. The records retention policy is a 146-page document dealing with a whole gamut of records from all diocesan departments, not just personnel files of accused priests, Reilly said.

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