Priest's Suit Goes to Trial
Activists Picket St. Patrick's

By Cristina Daglas
Capital Times
August 1, 2005

As parishioners filed out of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in downtown Madison on Sunday, they were handed leaflets detailing a trial that was beginning in Janesville today in which a priest is suing a 26-year-old man for defamation.

The man has accused the Rev. Gerald Vosen of sexually abusing him as a boy when Vosen was pastor at St. John Vienny parish in Janesville. Vosen, who is on administrative leave from his job as pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo, says the allegations are false and, in an unusual move, has filed suit against his accuser and his accuser's parents.

"I hope to get my name cleared," Vosen told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his Merrimac home.

The family's attorney, John Casey of Milwaukee, recently told the Baraboo News Republic the jury will find the man's testimony believable enough to rule in the family's favor. Casey did not return a call for comment Saturday from the AP.

Vosen, who still collects his salary and benefits from the diocese, said he is confident he will win in court "if the evidence presented is truly listened to."

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) stood outside the doors of St. Patrick's, 404 E. Main St., to protest Vosen's action.

The group, which consists of individuals who were abused when they were children by priests or nuns, is outraged over the lawsuit and by Madison Bishop Robert Morlino's silence on the issue.

"This is quite a circus," SNAP's Midwest Director Peter Isely said of the defamation suit. "I've never seen this anywhere in the U.S. The most stunning thing about it is the bishop has been silent."

SNAP member Mike Sneesby of Milwaukee says the suit against the accuser is a matter of "reabusing the victim," especially because a church investigation into the allegations against Vosen found them to be at least credible.

In a sworn affidavit filed in court, the man claims when he was a sixth-grader Vosen warned him of retribution -- including that he would go to hell -- if the boy ever told others about the abuse.

"The very act of filing a lawsuit against me and my parents, claiming that we lied and defamed him, is exactly the type of act of ruination of my family's reputation he had previously threatened," the man said in the affidavit.

A cloud of suspicion has surrounded Vosen since a woman at a hearing on a clergy sex abuse bill at the state Capitol two years ago said the priest had abused her brother in the 1970s. The diocese suspended Vosen, even though the woman's brother denied he ever was abused, and launched an investigation.

Morlino placed Vosen on administrative leave in February 2004, saying the investigation confirmed at least one of three victims' allegations was credible.

Vosen on Saturday identified the allegation found credible by the diocese as that of the Janesville man and said he learned the accuser's identity from the diocese. He denied suggestions he was trying to intimidate victims.

"I would hope it would discourage people who aren't telling the truth," said Vosen, 71. "I would hope if there are any other priests out there who have been falsely accused it would give them courage to step forward."

But Isely and the protesters outside St. Patrick's took a different view.

"Why is he not in a treatment center?" Isely asked.

SNAP wants the bishop to order Vosen to drop the lawsuit and to place Vosen in a sex offender treatment facility immediately. They then want Morlino to visit Vosen's former parish Sunday and announce that he does not support Vosen's actions and ask for any other victims to come forward.

SNAP also wants Morlino to educate Vosen's former parish on proper conduct toward sexual abuse victims.

"The bishop is just standing back and doing nothing about this," SNAP member Sneesby said outside St. Patrick's.

Sneesby said the trial should be the other way around -- the 26-year-old should be suing the priest.

But in Wisconsin, this is not possible. Wisconsin is the only state that prohibits clergy abuse victims from filing civil claims against priest abusers.

SNAP members are pushing to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling upholding that law changed.

Isely worries about the message this sends to other current sex offenders in churches. He believes there is no way a priest or nun will fear or respect Morlino after how he has handled this situation.

Parishioners from Vosen's former church are expected to be in court supporting him today. Isely said Vosen has rounded up parishioners to "intimidate, frighten and vilify the victim."

Isely said that Morlino should be in the courtroom sitting next to the victim, but he doesn't see that happening.


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