Priest Files May Lead to Reopening of Wisconsin Sex Abuse Case

By Robin Washington
Duluth News Tribune
January 26, 2014

The criminal case against a former Chicago-area priest and a Catholic grammar school principal both accused of repeatedly molesting a minor in Northwestern Wisconsin years ago could be reopened after newly unveiled documents were released by the Archdiocese of Chicago last week.

The criminal case against a former Chicago-area priest and a Catholic grammar school principal both accused of repeatedly molesting a minor in Northwestern Wisconsin years ago could be reopened after newly unveiled documents were released by the Archdiocese of Chicago last week.

The file of former priest James Steel, among records of 30 clergymen released Tuesday by the archdiocese, contains allegations that Steel and Donald Ryniecki sexually abused a boy on trips to Long Lake in Washburn County in 1982 and 1983.

Steel, who was laicized in 2001, was at the time a priest at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Wheeling, Ill., where Ryniecki was the school principal and where they also are alleged to have abused the boy.

The Archdiocese of Chicago found the allegations credible and paid an undisclosed settlement to accuser Robert Brancato five years ago. Yet while Washburn County and Wheeling law enforcement authorities investigated Steel and Ryniecki after Brancato filed a police report accusing them in late 2004, neither man was criminally charged.

“It’s basically just the word of the victim and no confession,” Will Fisher, a Washburn County Sheriff’s Office investigator, told the News Tribune last week. “I never saw anything that said anybody corroborated it.”

Fisher said he was unaware, however, of a later statement in the newly released files by a schoolmate of Brancato’s supporting the allegations.

“Wow,” he said by phone while perusing the online documents for the first time. “That looks interesting. I’ll talk to our DA and see what his feelings are about it.”

A Jan. 30, 2006, document written by archdiocese investigator Ed Grace relates an interview with the Rev. Steve Bauer, who was three years behind Brancato at St. Joseph’s.

“Today, Steve Bauer came in talk more about the (Brancato)/Ryniecki matter,” Grace wrote. “(Brancato) stated that Ryniecki abused (him), who then went to Steele (sic) who subsequently also abused him. Apparently, Bauer found the allegation credible.”

Bauer’s interview followed one that Grace documented earlier that month in which Bauer reported telling Wheeling police he was less certain of the events. In between the two interviews, Bauer met with Brancato, who provided details to spark his memory.

Yet Grace wrote in the second memo that, when asked “if Steve would corroborate (Brancato’s) story - Answer: NO.”

Nonetheless, archdiocese officials concluded the accusations probably were true.

“The report and detailed statement by (Brancato) as well as the observations and the interviews made by law enforcement from Washburn County, WI and from Wheeling, IL appear to support his allegations that he was sexually abused by Father Steel,” Brett K. Starr, an independent investigator for the archdiocese’s Office of Professional Responsibility, wrote in August 2006, noting Ryniecki’s corroboration that he and Steel were at the cabin with Brancato.

Because Brancato — formerly Robert Brangard — did not come forward until 2004, the statute of limitations for crimes alleged to have happened at the Illinois parish had by then expired.

Wisconsin, however, allows tolling, or stopping the clock on the statute of limitations for as long as suspects live out of the jurisdiction. The standard was successfully employed by Walworth County prosecutors in the 2006 conviction of Chicago priest Donald R. McGuire on child sexual abuse allegations dating from the 1960s.

“If they lived out of state, that stops the clock,” Fisher said of Steel and Ryniecki, who both have maintained residences in Illinois. “I don’t see why it couldn’t be reopened again if both the suspects are out of state.”

The documents released last week include repeated denials of the allegations from both men. They also detail the archdiocese’s suspicion of Steel having gambling problem, unexplained all-night absences from his parish, and his denial of knowing that a woman who police saw him pick up in his car at 5:20 a.m. was a prostitute.

A call placed to Steel’s last listed address in Palatine, Ill., on Friday was answered by a recording stating “at the customer’s request, (this number) has been temporarily disconnected.”

Ryniecki, of Hebron, Ill., responded to a request for comment from the News Tribune, saying, “I don’t like to take phone calls like this. It’s a closed issue.”

Of the possibility of the case being reopened in Wisconsin, Ryniecki said, “I don’t know anything about that.”

Brancato, 45, now of Rapid City, S.D., also has attempted contact with the two men. In 2007, he passed out leaflets warning Wheeling and Palatine residents that the two were alleged child molesters, according to news reports and an interview with the News Tribune. He knocked on Ryniecki’s door, handed him a flier and had a brief exchange with him, but was not successful in meeting Steel face-to-face.

Brancato also expressed frustration with a now-retired Washburn County investigator previously on the case.

“The previous investigator had this gift-wrapped to him,” Brancato said Friday, describing a “banker’s box of information” he handed over.

“I described the layout of the guest cabin where Steel would molest me after Ryniecki molested me in the main cabin. The statement that I gave him was 52 pages,” he continued. “He didn’t take it to a grand jury. He didn’t bring it to the (district attorney).”

Fisher disputed the last point, saying, “Our DA at the time wouldn’t prosecute it.”

The church documents include an account of the previous investigator’s interviews with Steel and Ryniecki in 2005. There is no indication of a conversation with Bauer, whose statements Fisher said he would now bring to the attention of new District Attorney Thomas Frost, appointed by Gov. Scott Walker on Jan. 6.

“That is excellent news,” Brancato responded. “If he wants to say, ‘Not in Washburn County and not in our state,’ that’s a good way to earn his chops.”


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