Bishop Regrets Handling of Case
In Letter, Fliss Says He Should Have Dealt with Priest Sooner

By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [Wisconsin]
April 4, 2002

Bishop Raphael M. Fliss of Superior apologized Wednesday to Catholics in his northern Wisconsin diocese, asking their forgiveness for failing to thoroughly investigate a priest who was moved from parish to parish after being accused of sexually abusing boys in the 1980s.

Fliss made that unusual appeal in a 1 1/2-page letter directed to "Fathers, Parish Directors and all Parishioners."

He said in an interview Wednesday night that the letter was faxed to the diocese's parishes and that he asked priests to share it with people attending Masses this weekend.

Fliss declined to comment beyond that.

"Having said all this," Fliss writes near the end of the letter, "I ask your forgiveness, understanding and prayers for my error in not thoroughly investigating these allegations prior to 1991. I assure you that under our current policies no repetition of that error has taken place nor will it in the future."

In the letter, Fliss cites recent news reports about his handling of the priest when Fliss was coadjutor bishop, second in command to the late Bishop George A. Hammes. He also notes nationwide news reports in recent months dealing with sexual abuse of children by priests.

The Superior case parallels a pattern of deceit and denial that has surfaced in other parts of the country since a series of stories early this year by the Boston Globe showed how church officials there shuttled priests accused of child molestation from one church to the next.

The Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday that Father David Malsch, a Superior diocesan priest, was accused in 1984 of indecently touching a 14-year-old boy in a rectory and offering him $10 for oral sex. Court records also show previous allegations, including a complaint that he molested two boys in a rectory after offering them beer and X-rated movies.

However, when Fliss handled the 1984 allegation, he persuaded the boy's father to let the church handle it, court records show. Fliss testified in a 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.

Malsch was sent for a psychological evaluation and then to a Minnesota treatment facility, where he spent 111 days for "alcohol and sexual problems."

Court records also show that Fliss persuaded police later in 1984 not to seek Malsch's prosecution, even though Malsch admitted to police and social service officials that the allegations were true.

But Fliss denied in a recent interview trying to keep Malsch out of the criminal justice system, saying, "I don't recall putting pressure on anybody."

A distraught mother — not church officials — finally brought Malsch to justice after she found pornographic videos in the bedroom of her son, who has learning disabilities, in 1991. The boy told her the videos came from Malsch.

"At the time of the 1984 incident, it appeared that the sexual misconduct of David Malsch was directly related to his alcoholism," Fliss says in the letter. "I had the misguided opinion that treating the alcoholism would solve the problem. In 1991, I did suspend David Malsch from the priesthood. Subsequently, he was convicted and served time in jail for his criminal actions.

"During and subsequent to the incident in 1984, a number of concerns were raised regarding David Malsch's conduct and ongoing issues with alcoholism which, when viewed in light of the incident in 1991, should have been more carefully addressed.

"I deeply regret and am truly sorry that I failed to pursue a thorough investigation of the 1984 incident prior to 1991. It was clear in 1991 that I failed to conduct as thorough an investigation as the situation warranted."

Malsch, now 63, was convicted on a child enticement charge in 1993 and later civilly committed under Wisconsin's sexual predator law to a private facility in Missouri for troubled priests. He is Wisconsin's only civilly committed sex offender on community supervision housed out of state.

Fliss says in the letter that he has made it clear for the past decade that the diocese has a no-tolerance policy for any improper sexual conduct and that it investigates allegations thoroughly.

"Along with other Catholics in the dioceses of America, we have all learned much about sexual misconduct within the church," his letter says. "It is evident we have much more to learn about dealing with the problem of good and evil. ...

"In conclusion, I assure you that the safety of children and all vulnerable people is a fundamental moral and legal obligation which I take very seriously. Accordingly, you have my commitment to protect children and eliminate sexual abuse."


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