With Church's Help
With Church's Help, State Priest Dodged Abuse Claims; Conviction Ended the Practice of Transferring Him to New Parishes

By Mary Zahn and Tom Kertscher
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Wisconsin]
April 2, 2002

A Catholic priest accused of sexually molesting boys in a church rectory after offering them beer and A Catholic priest accused of sexually molesting boys in a church rectory after offering them beer and X-rated movies was shielded from criminal prosecution by top church officials in northern Wisconsin for at least six years as they moved him from parish to parish.

In the end, a distraught mother — not church officials — finally put an end to Father David J. Malsch's freedom after she found pornographic videos in the bedroom of her son, who has learning disabilities, in 1991. The boy told her that the videos came from Malsch.

Malsch was convicted on a child enticement charge in 1993 and later civilly committed under Wisconsin's sexual predator law. But even now, Malsch is getting a better deal than most: He lives at a private facility in Missouri for troubled priests and is Wisconsin's only civilly committed sex offender on community supervision housed out of state. The Wisconsin taxpayer tab for Malsch's care is about $2,800 a month.

Details of how Malsch, 63, was eventually brought to justice and ended up at the Missouri group home for troubled priests were pieced together from civil and criminal court records in Lincoln and Marathon counties and state documents. Some records in Marathon County remain under seal.

The Malsch story, one of deceit by him and denial by top Catholic officials, is a version of the scandal engulfing the Catholic Church in other parts of the country. Sexual misconduct by priests is not a new story, but it became a bigger crisis in the church this year after stories published in January by the Boston Globe showed how church officials there shuttled priests accused of child molestation from one church to the next. Since then, similar problems have come to light in dioceses around the nation.

Despite knowledge of Malsch's alleged molestations, church officials time and again sent him to treatment, then returned him to parishes where he regularly had contact with teenage boys, including those with learning disabilities and emotional problems.

In an interview Monday, Diocese of Superior Bishop Raphael Fliss denied knowing the details of Malsch's offenses until years later.

"Back in the '80s when these things were alleged, I think none of us really understood how serious these things really were," Fliss said. "I had a certain naivete about pedophilia. I didn't know what it was all about."

Fliss denied trying to keep Malsch out of the criminal justice system.

"I don't recall putting pressure on anybody," Fliss said.

But court records differ. Records submitted by prosecutors seeking sexual predator status for Malsch in 1999 cite a meeting that Fliss arranged in 1984 between Malsch, police and social workers after accusations arose that Malsch had molested two boys in Superior.

One of the attendees recalled that in setting up the meeting, Fliss indicated that he didn't want Malsch charged criminally and had said, "He's my priest, we need him, and we'll take care of the situation."

Malsch's story makes clear that his status as a Catholic cleric in the Superior diocese allowed him to slip by the criminal justice system for years.

"File information indicates no other ... convictions, but does show a long history of sexual involvement with pubescent males dating back into the 1970s," according to a proposed state supervised release plan. "These well-documented accounts detail Mr. Malsch using his status as a Catholic priest to befriend and groom troubled teenage males in his parishes.

"He often gave these boys alcohol, clothing, jewelry, recreated with them, invited them to stay overnight at the rectory... . He would photograph these victims in sexually suggestive positions, and had attempted to engage in anal intercourse with them."

According to a supervised release plan for Malsch prepared by state officials, "Past reports indicate Mr. Malsch acknowledged and admitted the allegations were true."

The plan goes on to say, however, that in February 2001 he denied all accusations except the one for which he was convicted.

Malsch could not be reached at that Missouri facility. His attorney, James B. Connell of Wausau, said he had not reached his client and would not comment for him.

Malsch's position also helped him land at RECON, a religious-affiliated facility on a 280-acre campus in the foothills of the Ozarks with five lakes and two miles of walking trails. Every other sexual offender judged to be a sexual predator under Wisconsin law is being housed in Wisconsin, either in secured facilities or in the community, where they are regularly monitored by authorities.

Concern about Malsch's supervision at RECON increased last year when he sent smiling photographs of himself in cleric's robes to another convicted sex offender in the Wisconsin prison system. The pictures were mailed from RECON, along with magazine pictures of young boys with handwritten notations such as, "God, are these guys cute or what?"

Ordained in 1967

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Malsch was ordained in 1967 and assigned by the Diocese of Superior to Holy Rosary Parish in Medford. The Milwaukee native had wanted to be a priest since the second grade, saying later, "I loved the trappings ... the gold and the brocade and the ceremony ... and I wanted to be just like the priests."

Few public records document Malsch's activities in Medford, where he served until 1974.

Fliss, who didn't become second-in-command in the Superior diocese until 1979, said in a March 2000 sworn deposition, taken as part of a civil lawsuit, that he had no knowledge of Malsch's conduct in Medford. Fliss was elevated to bishop in 1985 when Bishop George Hammes retired, church authorities said.

In 1974, Malsch was named assistant pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Rhinelander. At that time, he was ordered into a 30-day alcohol treatment program by diocesan officials.

In 1975, Malsch was named pastor of St. Patrick Church in Superior, and a year later he was appointed as a religion instructor at Cathedral Junior High School there.

"My serious drinking problems started there in Superior," Malsch later told officials.

By 1981, the drinking was drawing the attention of parishioners. A St. Patrick trustee reported seeing Malsch intoxicated on three occasions, and again in 1983. After that report, records show, Malsch was sent for treatment for alcohol.

In an April 1983 memo to Hammes, Fliss reported that a number of priests had approached him with concerns about Malsch's "bizarre" behavior.

Asked to explain the memo years later in a deposition, Fliss said: "Overextending himself in his new role as chaplain. He's wearing insignia, he decorates his automobiles, gathering military headwear, that kind of thing. This is what they were telling me. That's what I reported."

Asked if church officials investigated those reports, Fliss said, "I think we just listened."

Meanwhile, authorities would later learn, Malsch also had been manifesting his sexual proclivities. The victims were two boys who had been introduced to the priest by their father in 1979. The boys, ages 12 and 13, went golfing, bowling and to movies with Malsch. During the next five years, the boys told investigators, he molested both of them, sometimes in the rectory, where he would offer them alcohol and show X-rated movies.

When one boy asked Malsch about a photo album he had seen with pictures of other naked boys, Malsch told him the pictures were "from a previous parish to which he had been assigned," court records say.

Records don't indicate just when the boys came forward and authorities began investigating their allegations, but they had made no arrests or dissuaded Malsch from his activities because in January 1984, Malsch indecently touched a 14-year-old victim in the rectory and offered him $10 for oral sex. Appalled, the boy immediately left and told his father, who called a trustee of the parish, who called Fliss, then second-in-command at the Superior diocese.

Court records show that a memo written by Hammes, the senior bishop, recounted that the victim's father "was prepared to go to the police."

It goes on: "Bishop Fliss telephoned him. ... (The victim's father) agreed to have the church work out the problem," the memo is quoted as saying.

Fliss testified in the March 2000 deposition that he never reported the molestation of the 14-year-old to police or to county social workers, even when he was contacted later by authorities investigating claims of Malsch's two prior alleged victims.

He said he did confront Malsch about the allegations and that Malsch "admitted to the alcohol, but nothing else."

Shortly after the January 1984 incident, he ordered Malsch removed as pastor of St. Patrick and sent him for a psychological evaluation and then to a Minnesota treatment facility, where he spent 111 days for "alcohol and sexual problems," court records show.

"I didn't want to have a lot of scandal," Fliss testified, adding that he wanted to get help for everyone involved, "Father Malsch included."

Officials at the Minnesota treatment center advised Fliss that Malsch's problems "included a markedly unbalanced lifestyle, including engaging in potentially disastrous sexual acting-out behavior."

About the time Malsch was released from the treatment facility in August 1984, Fliss arranged a meeting with Malsch, an official with the Superior Police Department, the director of the Douglas County Department of Social Services and a county social worker, who had spoken with some of the alleged victims and had written a report based on those interviews.

"Bishop Fliss arranged a meeting. ... Malsch admitted that the social service report was true," the court chronology says. That is the same meeting at which, court records indicate, Fliss said he needed Malsch and did not want criminal prosecution. No criminal charges were ever filed.

A short time after that meeting, Malsch was placed at St. Joseph Church in Rhinelander.

Sixteen years later, Fliss offered a different version of those key events. In the March 2000 deposition, he said under oath that he did not remember making those statements. He said he had arranged the August 1984 meeting but did not attend it and denied knowing the specifics of the Malsch investigation.

More drinking, another parish By January 1987, Malsch was drinking so heavily that a priest and two other people confronted him and encouraged him to go back into treatment, and then told Fliss about their actions, according to Fliss' deposition. In the deposition, Fliss said he couldn't recall whether he had talked to Malsch about those concerns.

Some months later, records show, Fliss transferred Malsch to St. Mary Church in Tomahawk because the parish served three other parishes and "needed the help of another priest."

There, Malsch was allowed to counsel children with emotional and learning problems and fairly quickly prompted others to warn Fliss that Malsch apparently had serious problems.

On a November Sunday in 1988, a female parishioner was preparing to be a lector at Mass when Malsch invited her into his office. She later reported that he showed her wrapping paper that pictured a dog being electrocuted while urinating and a picture of a sexually aroused man in a coffin. The woman was so upset that in January 1989, she and her husband drove to Superior to tell Fliss about the situation personally, according to Fliss' deposition.

Fliss testified that he spoke with Malsch about the incident.

"I think he denied it," Fliss said, adding that he did not believe Malsch but still did not fire him.

In early 1991, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Department began investigating allegations that Malsch had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old Tomahawk boy with learning disabilities at a Rib Mountain motel in February 1991.

The boy's mother called another priest after she found X-rated videos in her son's room in March and he told her they had come from Malsch. That spring, investigators found a locked trunk in the rectory filled with pornography.

Malsch was suspended from the diocese in May and again sent away for treatment while the criminal investigation was pending.

"The bishop yanked me and sent me for assessment at Golden Valley in Minnesota for nine days," Malsch told a psychologist in 1998. He also spent 10 months in Maryland at an inpatient sex offender program, but he told the psychologist he did not complete the aftercare because he had to pay for that portion.

Malsch's whereabouts in 1992 and 1993 are unclear.

In September 1993, authorities charged Malsch with two counts of second-degree sexual assault and one count of child enticement related to the Rib Mountain motel incident.

Malsch pleaded no contest in October 1993 to one count of child enticement. The other counts were dismissed but were considered during sentencing.

Marathon County Circuit Judge Raymond F. Thums placed Malsch on eight years of probation, with the first year under work release. He imposed and stayed a five-year prison term, which Malsch would serve if he violated conditions of his release.

Finally, he ordered that Malsch not be allowed to work as a priest or counselor "unless approved by the court in the future."

At Malsch's request, his probation was transferred to Indiana, where he had previously been placed on probation for a drunken driving conviction in 1993. Records indicate that he served time in an Indiana jail, with work release, and was allowed to participate in outpatient sex offender treatment. After drinking violations, he was extradited back to Wisconsin in 1994, where he remained in custody to face probation revocation proceedings.

In March 1995, a Wisconsin administrative law judge found that Malsch had violated probation but refused to send him to prison. In April 1995, he was released to community supervision.

Then in May 1997 — after Malsch wrote a sexually explicit letter to an 18-year-old prison inmate — his probation was revoked and he was sent to prison to serve out the balance of his sentence.

Labeled a sexual predator Before Malsch's mandatory release date on Feb. 3, 1999, Kendall M. Kelley, a special prosecutor for Marathon County, filed a petition under the state's sexual predator law seeking to commit Malsch to a state detention and treatment facility as a "sexually violent" person. State law defines such a person as someone convicted of certain sex crimes who remains dangerous because a mental disorder makes that person likely to engage in sexual violence.

That would have ensured that Malsch would not be released without supervision.

However, because Malsch had only one conviction on his record, Kelley said, winning the sexual predator case "would have been challenging."

If he had lost at trial, he said, Malsch would have been released.

Kelley said he and Malsch's attorney reached a compromise: Malsch agreed to admit that he was a sexually violent person in exchange for a recommendation that he be released to community supervision at the Missouri treatment facility.

Judge Thums approved the deal in January 2001, over the objections of officials with the state Department of Health and Family Services.

"We don't have anybody else in this category out of state," Neil Gebhart, assistant legal counsel for that agency, said in an interview. "We're paying for this placement and yet we can't do anything about supervising him. He received different treatment than the normal guy. Only the court can answer this question: Why?" New concerns raised Malsch's care costs Wisconsin taxpayers about $2,800 a month, less than the estimated $3,500 to $4,000 a month it would cost in the Wausau area, though authorities said he would receive much more treatment and supervision in this state.

Red flags about Malsch's treatment plan and supervision in Missouri were raised last June. A sexual abuse offender at a Wisconsin state prison received seven pictures of young boys between the ages of 3 and 10 from Malsch, apparently clipped from magazines.

He also sent photos of himself in religious attire and a smiling picture of himself in his bedroom with the handwritten notation "Taken last Feb. Shortly after arriving here. Since then, I've lost over 21 lbs and most of that gut!!" On Monday, Fliss said no attempt had been made to begin proceedings to defrock Malsch. Malsch has been suspended from his right to exercise priestly duties, Fliss said, but is allowed to concelebrate Mass with other priests at the RECON facility where he is housed.

Mark T. Matousek, director of clinical services at RECON, described the facility in one state report as giving treatment that is "very minimal," though the report says Malsch attends group therapy several times a week for his sexual and alcohol issues.

"We are basically a last resort when treatment has not worked — we basically warehouse them," the report quotes Matousek as saying.

Matousek did not return a reporter's phone calls.

Gebhart, the state attorney, sent a letter to Judge Thums on Sept. 17, alerting him to the pictures.

Gebhart wrote that until Wisconsin authorities contacted RECON officials, the officials were unaware of the mailings and would discharge Malsch back to Wisconsin if they became aware of similar actions in the future.

Gebhart noted that if Malsch had mailed such photos while on supervised release in Wisconsin, proceedings to return him to a secure state institution for sex offenders would have begun immediately.

Gebhart said his department was "turning to the court for direction" on how to proceed in the case.

Thums could not be reached for comment.

Marie Rohde of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.


1967 — David J. Malsch ordained a Catholic priest, assigned to Holy Rosary Parish in Medford.
1974 — Named assistant pastor at St. Joseph parish in Rhinelander.
— Ordered to attend 30 day alcohol treatment program.
1975 — Promoted to pastor of St. Patrick in Superior.
1979 — Rafael Fliss appointed a bishop of Diocese of Superior.
— Two boys introduced to Malsch. They later accuse him of molesting them for the next five years.
1981 — St. Patrick trustee reports that Malsch has apparent drinking problem.
1984 — 14-year-old boy says Malsch fondled and propositioned him in rectory. Parish members notify Fliss of allegation.
— Fliss removes Malsch from St. Patrick, orders him to Minnesota facility for 111 days of treatment for alcohol and sex problems.
— Fliss arranges meeting between Malsch, police and social workers, indicating he doesn't want criminal charges. None are filed.
— Malsch assigned to St. Joseph parish in Rhinelander.
1987 — Fellow priest and two others confront Malsch about drinking, urge return to treatment, notify Fliss of their concerns.
1987 or 1988 — Malsch transferred to St Mary parish in Tomahawk.
1988 — Female parishioner at St. Mary says Malsch showed her strange pictures and made inappropriate jokes. Later, the woman and husband meet personally with Fliss to tell him of the incident.
March 1991 — Lincoln County authorities begin investigating report that Malsch molested a 14-year-old learning disabled boy at a Rib Mountain motel in February 1991.
May 1991 — Malsch is suspended, sent for treatment to private facilities in Minnesota and Maryland.
Sept. 1992 — Malsch charged with three criminal counts related to Rib Mountain incident.
Oct. 1993 — Malsch pleads no contest to one count. Sentenced to five years prison, stayed, plus eight years probation, with first year served in a county jail with work release privileges. Probation allowed to transfer to Indiana, where Malsch was serving an earlier probation for drunk driving.
Nov. 1994 — Violates probation, returned to Wisconsin.
April 1995 — Released to community supervison.
May 1997 — Probation revoked after Malsch wrote sexually explicit letter to 18-year-old inmate. Sent to prison.
Feb. 1999 — Prosecutors begin civil process to have Malsch detained as a sexual predator.
Jan. 2001 — Judge commits Malsch to Department of Health and Family Services for treatment. Allows placement at Missouri home for wayward priests.
June 2001 — Wisconsin prison officials confiscate pictures of young boys Malsch mailed to an inmate.

Since then, state Health and Family Service officials have sought court guidance in the case, noting they have no authority to supervise Malsch in Missouri.


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