'He May Have Stolen My Youth, but I Won't Let Him Have My Faith'

By Jill Tatge-Rozell
The Kenosha News
October 19, 2013

Donna Polencheck stands outside of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Wilmot.

It’s been 11 years since Donna Johnson Polencheck, now 68, reported the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of a local priest.

She said there is satisfaction in knowing her abuser, Joseph Savage, has been unmasked. It allowed her to begin the healing process.

“I still don’t necessarily trust people who are in a position of authority in the church,” Polencheck said. “But I am a Catholic and no one is ever going to take that away from me. He may have stolen my youth, but I won’t let him have my faith.”

Polencheck wasn’t the only one to issue allegations against priests who served at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Wilmot in the 1950s. John Riesselmann and Wesley Woodall brought official complaints before the Archdiocese of Milwaukee regarding alleged abuse by former priests Harold Herbst and Joseph Savage.

Scared into silence

Polencheck said her late brother and two other family members were also allegedly abused by Savage — who had been defrocked by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1936, prior to coming to Wilmot.

Scared into silence in their youth, it took more than 30 years for the alleged victims to come forward. Both priests were already deceased when the reports were filed. The purpose of their reports, they said, was to reach out to other victims and make sure information about clergy abuse is made public.

“We wanted to reach out to other victims and let them know they are not alone,” Polencheck said. “There are hundreds out there. We have just scratched the surface.”

Confided in another abuser

Polencheck first went to the Rev. George Nuedling at St. John Catholic Church in Twin Lakes before going public. This was before allegations regarding Nuedling surfaced.

“The first person I told was Father George Nuedling,” she said. “He was good to my family. My father converted because of him. I respected him and I trusted him. That is why I went to him.”

Nuedling’s response was that she should tell her husband and pray. She didn’t know she had confessed her abuse to another abuser.

“When I found out the monster he was I felt abused all over again,” she said.

Polencheck said the Archdiocese of Milwaukee referred her to Chicago. In 2003, she received a report from the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Professional Fitness Review. She learned Savage was forced to resign in 1936 after alleged sexual abuse of a 14-year-old boy. However, none of that information was shared with subsequent congregations where Savage served.

According to Polencheck, the report says he was possibly reinstated in 1938 at a diocese in northern Wisconsin. It is unclear how Savage was allowed to celebrate his Golden Jubilee at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Antioch, Ill., when he was no longer a member of that diocese.

Goes public with report

She went public with the findings. It was a frightening thing to do, she said.

“It wasn’t easy to walk around town after the article came out,” she admits, referencing a newspaper article that appeared in the Kenosha News in April 2004.

But people did come forward. She got letters from other victims, some anonymous, some signed.

Documents regarding the allegations involving Herbst were released earlier this year by the Achdiocese of Milwaukee. Those involving Savage were handled by the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Counseling sessions

Polencheck said the Archdiocese of Chicago provided group and individual counseling, along with opportunities for victim-survivors to attend overnight retreats.

Her counseling sessions ended this spring.

“That was very traumatic for me — to end that,” she said, adding if she could have continued it for the rest of her life, she would.

She is grateful for the Rev. Roger Savage at Holy Name (no relation to Joseph Savage) for believing her and being an advocate for the victim survivors from that parish.

“My former parish has removed the pictures of my abuser and the two pastors he served under who knew about the abuse but did not stop it,” Polencheck said.

In 2004 and 2005, the archdiocese in Milwaukee entered into settlements with victims claiming abuse by Herbst. The initial settlement, which included Holy Name Congregation, resulted in a payment of $75,000. The latter one resulted in a payment of $75,000, and up to an additional $25,000 for any treatment needs.



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