Victim of Assault by Wisconsin Priest Lauds Release of Abuse Files

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 6, 2013

“These documents are really the closest to the truth any of us will get because the church leadership seems incapable of dealing honestly with people,” said John Pilmaier, 42, who was sexually assaulted at age 7 by his parish priest.

John Pilmaier

David Hanser

Jerome Listecki

John Pilmaier was 7, a second-grader at St. John Vianney School in 1977, when Father David Hanser walked into his classroom and asked for a volunteer to help him with a project.

Several children raised their hands, Pilmaier says, but he was chosen.

And so they walked, Father Dave and John, to the rectory that the priest called home. Once there, Hanser sexually assaulted the boy, then warned him not to tell anyone, saying his parents would be angry with him.

John Pilmaier is the final entry, just three lines, in the history of the now-defrocked Hanser, which was released Monday with thousands of pages of documents as part of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy proceeding.

Hanser's file recounts what Pilmaier and his parents had already come to suspect: that their once-trusted parish priest may have sexually assaulted numerous children over the years, dating at least to the 1960s.

Still, reading the documents — the litany of allegations, how bishops moved Hanser to parishes and later to a hospital after he was first accused — was devastating and yet also a relief.

"It's hard, even though you know it, when you see it in print," said Lynn Pilmaier of Brookfield, who for years blamed herself for not protecting her son.

But for John, it was a comfort, in a way, to finally learn the truth.

"A lot of survivors, myself included, you want to know what happened to you," said Pilmaier, who was 36 when he first told his parents of the abuse. "These documents are really the closest to the truth any of us will get because the church leadership seems incapable of dealing honestly with people," he said.

Pilmaier, 42, is among 575 men and women who have filed claims in the archdiocese's bankruptcy alleging they were sexually assaulted by priests or others associated with the church. About 90 of those claims, including Pilmaier's, involve victims who had signed prior settlements with the archdiocese but are now asking those to be set aside.

Pilmaier, who received a $100,000 settlement from the archdiocese, alleges that Chancellor Barbara Anne Cusack misled him before he signed the settlement agreement, by telling him the church had not known of earlier complaints about Hanser or about other students assaulted at St. John Vianney in Brookfield.According to the documents released last week, a complaint had been made against Hanser in 1975 while he was working at St. John Vianney, and some church leaders — including Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now cardinal of New York, and retired Bishop Richard Sklba — knew about the earlier complaint by the time of Pilmaier's 2007 mediation.

Cusack issued a statement Friday saying that as chancellor she sat in more than 100 mediation sessions and that she was truthful to Pilmaier during his.

"In each of them, including with John Pilmaier, I told the truth and I was always forthcoming in sharing information with abuse survivors," she said. "I am sorry that John was hurt by this process. I know from my personal experience that it was helpful to many others, and I am saddened that it did not always work for some."

Pilmaier filed a claim in the bankruptcy case, he says, not to get more money. He suspects he might actually get less by ceding his settlement when it all shakes out, especially if the courts rule the archdiocese cannot tap its insurance policies to pay victims. But the social worker who once studied for the priesthood and sat on the board that advised Dolan on sex abuse issues said he joined the bankruptcy as a way to hold the archdiocese accountable for its actions.

"When you've carried this poison in you for 30 years, with all of the damage it's done to you and your family, you want to be treated with dignity as a person," said Pilmaier. "You want to be dealt with honestly."

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley dismissed Pilmaier's claim, saying he failed to show why the settlement contract, in which he absolved the archdiocese of future liability, was not valid.

Her decision was affirmed in the U.S. District Court and is now at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A history of abuse

According to the records released last week, Hanser was accused of molesting more than a dozen boys, ages 7 to 18, from the early 1960s to 1985, though only one of those cases was actually reported to the archdiocese before 1988.

Ordained in 1958, Hanser, who was independently wealthy, would often ingratiate himself with large families, according to the records, then invite their boys to his Moose Lake cottage, where he would assault them.

Most of the incidents appear to have occurred while Hanser was at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, from 1961-'70; St. John Vianney, 1970-'78; and St. Mary's Parish in Pewaukee, 1982-'88.

The archdiocese received the earliest recorded complaint in November 1975, according to a handwritten note released as part of Hanser's file. It says: "Informed that D.H. had taken teen age his cottage at the lake to help him etc — but while there went to bed with the boy and touched him indecently. Called in D.H. to discuss the matter — gave rather evasive answers."

It's not clear who wrote it. But Sklba found it in a locked drawer belonging to then Bishop Leo Brust in 1998.

After the 1975 complaint, Hanser was assigned to at least two other parishes — Holy Family in Whitefish Bay and the former St. Mary's in Pewaukee — and St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee, though he was ordered not to have contact with children there. Later, some of those restrictions were lifted so he could minister to children if no one else were available, or to offer them the Sacrament of Penance.

Hanser underwent intensive therapy beginning in the late 1980s. His ministry was restricted to varying degrees beginning in 1988. He was fully restricted in 2002, and laicized, or defrocked, in 2005.

At least one other student at St. John Vianney accused Hanser of molesting him, saying the assault occurred in about 1972, according to the documents. The victim did not report it to the archdiocese until 2002, which was 30 years after the assault, but before Pilmaier's mediation.

John Pilmaier struggled in the years after his assault by Hanser. Even today, he has trouble putting into words what happened in the rectory; the humiliation is still so raw.

Shortly after the incident, Pilmaier developed a severe stutter that dogged him until high school. His parents knew something was wrong, so they took him to a therapist, but he would never say what was troubling him.

A devout Catholic at the time, he began thinking about the priesthood as a high-schooler, and spent nearly two years in the college seminary before deciding against it.

His life seemed on track professionally. He finished college, worked at banks in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, volunteered at the White House. But he says a pall hung over it all.

As an adult, Pilmaier says, he struggled with depression and forging relationships, with trust and intimacy. Always, he said, the experience at St. John's lurked just beneath the surface.

Pilmaier finally told his parents in 2006, after an unrelated health crisis in which he was hospitalized and feared he might die.

"I started to think seriously about the state of my life and where I was headed," he said. "It caused me to confront what happened to me as a child."

Parents devastated

It was life-shattering for his parents, who thought they'd done everything right, moving to the suburbs to put their children in a good school and giving them a foundation in their faith.

"I believed not only that you gave the church your money, but you gave your time and talent," said Lynn Pilmaier, who volunteered each week at St. John's and on the school playground.

She remembers in hindsight that Hanser always seemed to have children around him.

"I just thought that was nice," she said. "I had no idea."

When he reported the abuse to the archdiocese, Pilmaier was encouraged to participate in its voluntary mediation program, set up by the church at at a time when victims had no recourse in the courts due to statutes of limitations and other past rulings that favored the archdiocese.

Dolan started the mediation program with the expectation of paying victims on average $30,000, according to court records.

Pilmaier at the time saw it as an exercise in restorative justice.

"I went into that meeting with the chancellor in the hopes that she, that they would hear me and do everything in their power to make sure it never happened again to someone else," he said. "It was a very emotional meeting ... as I tried to explain the impact this had on my life."

Pilmaier says he had two questions: When did the archdiocese first receive a report that Hanser had sexually assaulted a child? And had anyone else from St. John Vianney School accused the priest of assault?

Pilmaier said Cusack left the room to check. When she returned, he said, she told him the first complaint against Hanser came in the 1980s, after Pilmaier's assault. And, he says, she told him no other boys from St. John's had complained.

"So it was a relief to me that they didn't know," before he was assaulted, Pilmaier said.

Archdiocese attorney Frank LoCoco objects to criticism of Cusack. "Mistakes were made over the years," he said. "But Barbara Anne Cusack is one of the great people who has worked hard for many years for abuse survivors and their healing."

Pilmaier's contract with the archdiocese clearly states that he could consult an attorney, but he says he did not.

"I was still a practicing Catholic, and I believed they had my best interests at heart," he said.

Within a few years after signing, Pilmaier says, he began to suspect otherwise.

He was sitting on the advisory board and had begun meeting other victims. He attended his first national conference of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests in Washington, D.C., where he met Milwaukee survivor and activist Peter Isely. And he began to hear other survivors' stories with their recurrent themes of abuse and coverup by church authorities. He became more active in SNAP, now serving as its Wisconsin director.

Over time, Pilmaier says, he began to suspect that he may have been lied to. He became convinced, he said, after watching the video deposition of retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland on the Journal Sentinel website in 2008. In it, Weakland admitted moving sex abusers from parish to parish without divulging their histories to the next parishioners. The only way Pilmaier would ever know for certain, the only way he would ever see Hanser's file, would be to sue the archdiocese or file a claim in the bankruptcy.

A crisis of faith

The Pilmaiers' experience has taken a toll on their faith. John Pilmaier, who once loved to going to Mass, was the last to leave the church. It was a gradual process, he says, "as I began to realize the betrayal, the lies, I just couldn't reconcile it anymore."

His parents, too, felt betrayed. Friends in their church walked away from them, Lynn Pilmaier said, because they didn't want to hear about the sexual abuse of children. "Who would?" she said.

"My faith is gone. ... I don't even know what I believe anymore," said Lynn Pilmaier, with no hint of anger.

"I think, if there's a god, then God carries me. And if there isn't, I'm working alone."

She does, though, believe in her son, who now advocates for other victims and policies needed to keep other children safe.

"When I look at the pain my son has had to go through...he is such a hero," she said. "He's not an angry person; he's a very peace-filled person. He wants children to be safe, and keeps going patiently. I don't know how he does that," she said. "But I am just so proud of him."


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