Capuchins Protected Sex Abusers for Years, Self-audit Reveals

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 26, 2013

It's been 44 years since Father Mel Hermanns sexually abused a boy at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary in Fond du Lac County.

It's been 23 years since a separate case of suspicious conduct "involving physical activities with minor males" was reported.

And 20 years since the Capuchin priest's order paid for the seminary victim's counseling, and sent Hermanns to a treatment center known for its programs for sex offenders.

But Hermanns was not removed from ministry until just last fall, and even then there was little public notification.

Hermanns' name appears on a list of 23 current and former Capuchin friars removed for sexually abusing minors. It was released last week as part of an unprecedented audit commissioned by the Detroit-based Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, which operates parishes and other ministries in Milwaukee, to assess its sexual abuse policies and come to terms with its history.

The audit echoes the broader church's handling of the global sex abuse crisis, and provides insight into how one religious order systematically protected abusers and put the concerns of friars and their organization ahead of their responsibility to victims. It also shows why abuse victims have been adamant that religious orders be more transparent, and that dioceses take more responsibility for order priests living and working in their communities.

In emails to the Journal Sentinel, Capuchin Provincial Minister Father John Celichowski acknowledged the order erred in its handling of Hermanns' case, blaming it in part on poor record-keeping, lack of communication between provincials and a 2002 review by the Archdiocese of Chicago that also found him fit for service.

"We believe that this episode, troubling and embarrassing as it is, underscores the efficacy of our ...audit," said Celichowski, who took over as provincial minister in 2008.

But victims and advocates voiced anger that it has taken the Capuchins so long.

"Shame on them," said Milwaukee attorney Robert Elliott, who filed several unsuccessful lawsuits against the Capuchins in the 1990s, accusing them of encouraging sexual abuse at St. Lawrence, destroying documents and trying to silence victims and employees who spoke up.

Those lawsuits, and many others like them, were dismissed after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that suing religious institutions over their handling of sex abuse cases violated their First Amendment right to the free expression of religion.

"They knew about Hermanns, as well as the other predators at St. Lawrence and their rampant, uncontrolled sexual abuse of young boys in explicit detail as early as 1993, probably earlier," Elliott said. "They have no excuse for not removing and defrocking Hermanns 20 years ago."

Cases in 1990s

St. Lawrence is a high school seminary run by the Capuchins atop a scenic hill in Fond du Lac County since the 1800s.

Several of the friars on the list of offenders Fathers Gale Leifeld and Jude Hahn, Brother Thomas Gardipee and others were removed from ministry in the 1990s after The Milwaukee Journal uncovered the history of sexual abuse at the school in 1992. Among the victims there were Peter Isely, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, now an internationally known advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.

The Capuchins acknowledged that abuse in a 1993 document known as the Kersten Report, although the latest audit says it underestimated the number of victims and abusers. Hermanns' name does not appear in the report.

Hermanns' incident, reported in 1993, involved an encounter with a St. Lawrence student in 1969, according to the Capuchins. Hermanns never actually worked at the high school. At the time, he was based in Detroit as part of the Capuchins' vocations team and traveled the Capuchins' 10-state region recruiting teens to become friars.

The Capuchins will not say, even now, what the incident entailed. And they insist it was the only allegation they ever received about Hermanns.

In 1990, when Hermanns was serving as pastor at St. Elizabeth Parish in Milwaukee now St. Martin de Porres observers, including Archdiocese of Milwaukee staff, reported him for "suspect conduct involving physical activities with minor males," according to the Capuchins.

After the abuse allegation surfaced in 1993, the order paid the victim's counseling fees. And it sent Hermanns, along with fellow friars accused of sexually abusing minors at St. Lawrence, to a now-defunct New Mexico treatment center dubbed "Camp Ped" for its programs for pedophile priests.

For a while, the Capuchins imposed restrictions on Hermanns' ministry, sending him to serve at an Appleton retreat house with orders not to have unsupervised contact with young people.

But he was cleared for full ministry and sent in 1999 to Our Lady Gate of Heaven in Chicago, which had an adjacent school at the time. Parishioners were not alerted to his history.

Three years later, the Chicago archdiocese's professional fitness review board took another look at the 1993 allegation and concurred that the original abuse was not sexual, according to the Capuchins. The order said it doesn't know why the order revisited the allegation, and the Chicago archdiocese declined to say, claiming confidentiality.

He remained at Our Lady Gate of Heaven parish until last year.

"When a new provincial comes in, he doesn't go through every file; it hasn't been the practice," said Amy Peterson, former victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, who now heads the Capuchins' Office of Pastoral Care and Conciliation.

"The audit was an attempt to see if anything was ever missed, and that was true with Mel," she said. "In a sense, we all failed ... and we accept responsibility for that."

Critic on audit panel

Even before its release, the Capuchin audit was remarkable, if only for its choice of auditors: among them, Father Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest and internationally known canon lawyer, who has spent the last 30 years bludgeoning the Catholic Church over its mishandling of the sex abuse crisis.

Doyle, who first alerted the American bishops to the coming abuse tsunami in the 1980s and has testified against the Catholic Church in numerous lawsuits, said he told Capuchins early on that he would not take part in a whitewash.

"I told them, the first whiff I get of a coverup, I'm out of here. I'm going public," he said.

The audit is critical, noting that the Capuchins, like the broader church, moved problem priests from place to place without sharing their troubled histories, rarely reported abusers to civil authorities and used aggressive tactics against victims. In one case their lawyers threatened to out a victim's sexual orientation.

In all, the auditors reviewed more than 1,000 personnel files, provincial council minutes going back to the 1930s, and other documents some that were missing from the Capuchins' archives, but were provided by victims.

Hermanns' personnel file quickly piqued the interest of auditors, in part because his stint at the treatment center run by the Servants of the Paracletes in Jemez Springs, said Doyle.

The auditors asked to see his treatment file, to which Hermanns had to consent. Because of their concerns, the Capuchins had Hermanns re-evaluated, and during that process, the friar admitted the 1969 incident was sexual. He also admitted other "boundary issues" with minor boys that the Capuchins will not discuss to this day, saying it would violate his right to privacy.

Hermanns was pulled from ministry in September 2012, and Chicago Cardinal Francis George withdrew his faculties needed to function as a priest in that archdiocese. No mention appears on the Archdiocese of Chicago website, which features the names of restricted diocesan priests, though Our Lady Gate of Heaven is a parish of the archdiocese. The Capuchin and archdiocese disagree over who should have made the decision public in 2012.

The relationship between religious orders and dioceses is a continuing conflict in priest sex abuse cases. The Milwaukee archdiocese, which has filed for bankruptcy protection as a result of sex abuse claims against it, argues that it is not responsible for the actions of religious order priests. It includes only diocesan priests on its public list of priests with substantiated allegations.

Victims groups disagree, noting that the archbishop must grant permission for religious order clergy, including friars, to minister publicly in his geographic area. They also note that parishioners rarely make a distinction, particularly if order priests are serving at diocesan parishes.

Undisclosed location

The Capuchins say Hermanns is now living in a supervised environment, away from schools, but they will not say where. Catholic religious orders, including the Capuchins, rarely defrock their troubled priests, seeking instead to monitor and care for them within their community.

It is not clear what became of the victim. The Capuchins will not say whether he received a settlement. Except for two five-figure awards mentioned in the audit, any settlements generally range from $2,000 to $4,000, it said.

Isely, of SNAP, scoffed at the discrepancy in how priests and their victims are treated.

"What's fortunate for them," Isely said of abusive friars, is they're taken care of.

"If you look at the way the offenders have been treated by Capuchins not just money, but the way they went after victims it's absolutely stunning."

Peterson insists the Capuchins are trying to right those wrongs, by admitting their errors and compensating victims who were harmed.

"Our goal is to be honest with people, to help people," she said.








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