The Sexual Abuse of Children in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee

Submitted February 10, 2004 by:
Peter Isely
Jim Smith

[Adapted with permission by the addition of a table of contents. The text is identical to the original posting at]

"After 1985, all churches in the United States were on notice that they cannot put priests who have had incidents of having sexual abuse in parishes or any setting where they would have access to children.  For the church authorities to have allowed this to happen was sinful, more than negligent, and I believe they should be held accountable."

Father Thomas Brundage
Judicial Vicar of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese

[This table of contents has been added by to make navigation and linking to individual sections easier. We have grouped sections that are related and have added in square brackets the last names of priests who are discussed in detail.]


Number of clergy sex offenders in the archdiocese
Misleading figure
Number of victims in the archdiocese
“Not Boston”

Culture of secrecy
1985 warning
Authority of the bishop
Catholic opinion

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions
No legal remedy
Effect of court decisions

Problem would be over
Public spokesperson for the church
Media relations improve
Motions dropped
Insurers unsympathetic
Documents shredded
State of the art

Nowhere to be found
Prediction vindicated
Last hurdle
Time for renewal
Topic not raised
Public disclosure

Unrecorded reports
Deluged with complaints [Bistricki]
Promoted to bishop [Fliss]
The secret of St. John de Nepomuc [Kazmarek]
New assignments
Inherited problems [Widera]
Reassigned to California
Two brothers, two states
Another California connection [Becker]
Pedophile lend-lease program
Early window [Nichols]
Licensed by the state [Arimond]
Bishop Banks [Buzinowski]
Priest will sue
Notorious cases kept quiet [Nuedling]
Legacy of abuse
Abuse witnessed
Left alone
Archbishop “cavalierly insensitive” [Pecore]
Another arrest
Victims “not so innocent”

Project Benjamin
Years of criticism
Pastoral vs. legal priorities
Pastoral tone, policy sham
Outsourcing victim’s services urged early

Adversarial, if need be [Buzinski]
“Cold and business-like”
Celebrated priest [Lesniewski]
“Whatever support you need”
Some cases not so quiet [Effinger]
Public complaints necessary
Interested in working with youth
Notification “not useful”

Public assurances of reporting
Not required by law
Find a counselor [Burns]
Surreal turn of events
Seeming paradox
Praised in letter
Endangering public safety

“Treats us like gold” [Hanser]
Mind unchanged
“When the squealing starts”
“Affairs” with youngsters
Never dealt with a “real pedophile”

Will commit “sexual acts against small children again” [Hahn]
Venerable tradition [Capuchins]
Red letter day
Trips out West
No insinuations
Sexual assaults at the minor seminary
Public disclosure healthy
“Could become another major scandal”
Archbishop’s authority requested
“Actions against small children”
Archbishop’s exemption needed
“Not well known in this area”
Archbishop opposes reporting bill

Published reports [Leifeld]
Ready confessions, career advancement
“Moral problems”
Nearly three decades of abuse
13 year-olds “not believable”
Desperate acts of resistance
Psychological retaliation
Temper problems
Archbishop contacted
Transfer delayed
“Complicating the work of the seminary”
Grateful for “attention to individual students”
Prognosis “not bright”
“No hard feelings”
No “network of individuals”
“Justified mistrust”
Still unresolved
“Articles against us”
Helpful witness
Welcomed back to Milwaukee by Archbishop
Reconciled with God

“Gentle Giant” [Buser]
Abuse reported to rector
Teaching students about ambition
Faculty report
More reports to the rector
Suicide attempt
Kneeling out
Not “seminary material”
Next of kin

Capuchin investigation
Racketeering charges
Someday “the cover of time”
Lessons learned

Lapsus linguae and lapsus mentis


Official history, Camus once observed, is written by those who make history, not those who suffer from it.        

A recently published authorized history of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee runs some 800 pages.  It is dedicated to the legacy of retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, who served the archdiocese from 1977 to 2002.  Exhaustively and meticulously chronicled, the document reviews thousands of events and personalities that have shaped the character and quality of the Church of Milwaukee. 

What the reader will not locate within this otherwise comprehensive survey is a single recorded instance of the crime of clergy sexual abuse.* Absent also is any indication of what Milwaukee’s Catholic bishops knew or did about these terrible crimes.

This document, drafted on behalf of the victims of childhood sexual abuse by archdiocesan clergy who are currently in group mediation, is an attempt to undo and reverse this official history.

That history has been, and too often continues to be, adversarial to the victims of these crimes and, therefore, the enemy of memory and witness.  If there is no place in the history of the church for the affliction that befell so many Catholic children at the hands of clergy sex offenders, how can there be the necessary grief, correction and instruction their testimony demands?

In the following pages the reader will find numerous fragments of memory—testimony, records, documents—that have been pulled from oblivion, which was to be their destination if the church would have succeeded in its intentions.  They are only fragments because many of these crimes have never been and never will be reported to any authority.  But it is not with unknown crimes that this document concerns itself, but with ones known to church officials.

That makes this document, with its eyewitness accounts and sampling of church records, the latter obtained through luck and guile, a miracle of moral rescue.

Over the centuries, the church has constructed and perfected an elaborate theology and practice of suppressing words it maintains will damage the faithful, what it calls “giving scandal.”  One extraordinary letter which escaped official history informs the Vatican about a serial child sex offender in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.  The word “scandal” is utilized, almost as a talisman, no less than two dozen times in its one and a half pages.  The subject of the letter is a diagnosed pedophile priest who admits to sexually abusing “small children” in a village near Fond du Lac and confirms that he will do it again.  He is also refusing treatment.  The archbishop welcomes him nonetheless to live in Milwaukee because “nobody knows him down here” and, being unknown, he has “caused no scandal.” 

The words recorded here of victims, clergy sexual predators and church officials were not meant to be read by those outside the closed circle of church power--primarily bishops, religious order provincials and their lawyers.  To these men, the potency of these words to “give scandal” is where the real evil of clergy sexual abuse lurks and no resource is to be spared to combat it.  In fact, twice as much money has been spent by this archdiocese compensating its attorneys than in the support and treatment of victims. 

The words recorded here are dangerous; only a handful of church officials were ever meant to see them and determine their true import.  The official church feared that these words, if spoken aloud or distributed in print, would challenge and threaten the foundation of Catholic truth in ordinary believers.  Unlike the church officials, the ordinary believer may not be able to grasp, through these dark clerical acts, the eternal luminosity of the priesthood or the divine dispensation of Episcopal authority.

The reader of this work will inevitably wonder why these crimes, although repeatedly discovered by Milwaukee church authorities, were allowed to continue, placing children under the care of the archdiocese at risk for several decades.  Why did church leaders who knew these crimes were being committed permit them to continue when they might have stopped them?  Even the direct testimony of victims and the admissions of offenders were like trees falling silently in the proverbial woods.  These words were never really heard; so the crimes could be deemed to never have occurred. 

Ingenious efforts were taken to silently but scrupulously examine each case of abuse for its potential to damage the public edifice of the church.  Indeed, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, these crimes were sufficiently threatening to Milwaukee’s bishops that they felt compelled to let lawyers in on their dark secrets.

The details of many of these crimes remain, to this day, locked in church files, warehoused in a so-called “secret archive” which must be maintained, according to centuries old canon law, by every diocese in the world.  The civil law guards these files as well, at least in Wisconsin, where two state Supreme Court rulings in the 1990’s immunized religious organizations from civil lawsuits due to sexually abusive clergy.  These decisions determined that holding the church accountable for its conduct in civil courts—as church officials in Boston and the rest of the nation are—would amount to an unconstitutional interference with the free exercise of religion.

Sufficient documentation of church duplicity, however, has escaped its keepers and form, along with the testimony of victims, the heart of this report.  These documents confirm, beyond doubt, the depressing truth that Archbishop Weakland knew that the sexual abuse of children was occurring in his archdiocese.  Yet he repeatedly decided to place the safety of “the church”--a handy rationale for placing himself, archdiocesan managers and clergy sex offenders under the same liability free tent--before the safety of children.  The archbishop’s reputation--as a foe to Vatican backwardness and obfuscation, the champion of enlightened religious intelligence and liturgical practice in a theologically dark time--is revealed for all its grand insignificance, at least for those children who were raped and sodomized by the clergy under his authority.   It is, as William James would have said, a difference that made no difference.

   The reader will find other religious leaders as well, all under Archbishop Weakland’s authority, discussing “felony crimes against children punishable by prison time in the United States,” and plotting to aid and abet child sex offenders’ escape from detection and prosecution.  Senior officials devised to preserve clergy sex offenders’ “good names” and Catholics “their faith.”  The Milwaukee Archdiocese deemed this deception an acceptable trade-off when the alternative would have been scores of priests in prison and bishops facing public disgrace.

As for victims who might interfere with this careful strategy, they were dealt a combination of pastoral razzle-dazzle and thinly veiled legal threats.  As one church attorney succinctly put it, victims had better “zip it up or else.” Prior to the Supreme Court decisions, victims presenting to the archdiocese for help would be greeted by its outreach director’s admonition that if you “cooperate” with the church, you will be treated kindly, but “if you get adversarial with the church, the church will get adversarial with you.”  After the Supreme Court provided civil immunity, such tough talk was no longer necessary.  It was sufficient to simply inform victims that “there is no chance to sue the church in Wisconsin.”

There are likely well over one hundred perpetrators with sex offenses substantiated by the archdiocese and religious orders in the Milwaukee archdiocese.  Given the extremely low rate of victim reporting of sexual abuse – only 7 percent in one study – the number of acknowledged perpetrators represents only a fraction of the clergy sex offenders who have operated in the Milwaukee archdiocese.  Most of the perpetrators are thought to still be alive.  However, the archdiocese has refused to reveal their whereabouts.

In one letter from a religious order provincial, a friar stationed in Milwaukee and known to have abused over a dozen youngsters, is assured that he has no reason to fret.  Despite what the priest and the provincial had feared, “there is no network of individuals out there”; the priest’s numerous young victims had not made contact with each other and put the pieces of the cover-up together.  Indeed, the Capuchin lawyers are quite “satisfied” that they never will.   The razzle-dazzle and intimidation are working seamlessly.  But the priest must tell the Capuchin attorneys, protected by privilege of course, the names of his other victims, the vast majority of which have not made their way to provincial headquarters.   Do not tell me the names, the provincial cautions, but do tell the lawyers.  Do that, the letter implies, and I will leave you alone in your comfortable apartment, unsupervised and unencumbered.  Do that and you may continue your parish ministry in which you may continue to take vulnerable boys camping and traveling. Do that even though treatment providers have told me your prognosis for stopping offending “is not too bright.”  Do that and the Capuchins will continue to supply your rent, monthly stipend, a nice car and full medical coverage. 

The priest supplied the names.  And the provincial was as good as his word.

A section of this work is devoted to the sexual abuse of countless youngsters by Capuchin pedophiles because a cache of church documents concerning the religious order became available.  The Capuchins are, presumably, no worse than any other group of clerics working in the archdiocese.  Yet, so widespread were their crimes against youth that a senior Capuchin official could remark in 1980, well before the truth of clergy sexual abuse became public, that “one day” the Capuchins would “be on the cover of Time” for it.  The Capuchin documents include the anguished testimony of victims who lived through these horrific events.  “Lived through” was not in all cases accurate, for documented here are stories of those who, unable to bear the childhood memories of abuse or the indifference and ill treatment of church leaders, took their own lives.

The most important feature of this work is the testimony of victims, whose combined words create a single and indelible voice of moral witness.  The religious elite of the Catholic Church turned a deaf ear to that witness. The response painfully contrasts with the founding story of the church itself, which is the account of a victim whose voice was silenced by human violence and restored by divine love.

Even as the American bishops anticipate the release in February of 2004 of what they claim will be the true number of clergy involved in these crimes, they are fully cognizant that numbers are not words.  And it is words they fear most.  Practiced in the art of speech, masters of spiritual rhetoric and persuasion, much of the work of being a bishop, as any leader, is to daily harness words to create various and sundry effects.

On the other hand, no one is more cognizant of the poverty of words than the victims of the crimes detailed here.  There is an innocence of speech in their testimony that mirrors the innocence of the children who were raped.  It is innocence recognized only in its loss.  Paradoxically, that innocence is rarely acknowledged or affirmed by the victim, who cannot grasp that the universe can be so arbitrary and capricious as to select him for such inexplicable treatment.  In the infernal dynamic of child sexual abuse it is rarely the criminal, after all, who feels the moral repugnance of his act.  Instead, it is the victim who absorbs the moral horror, which should logically be felt by the perpetrator.  It is literally dumped by the criminal into the child’s soul.  Between the child and the sex offender it is only the child who possesses a moral point of gravity.  Moral weight falls effortlessly from the criminal, who has managed to fall beneath the calculus of good and evil, onto the child victim who must now carry its awful and impossible mass or be crushed by it.

When a victim of child abuse discloses his story, every listener is placed into the same moral crucible in which the crime was first commissioned.  What is the listener to do with the weight of this testimony? 

In the pages that follow, those who heard this testimony were most often bishops and other church authorities.  Would they join the victim and yoke themselves to the moral weight the victim was carrying?  Or would they join the criminal and multiply the terrible weight the victim would now have to bear?  

That decision, or the willed avoidance of it, is what this document is really about.

Sources for this report span over three decades of documents and testimony including:
- Court records, documents and depositions pertaining to civil and criminal cases against clergy and religious employed in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  A pair of 1995 and 1997 state Supreme Court decisions effectively ended most civil litigation which, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers, had numbered over 100 cases and was growing.  Documents in almost all cases were sealed until 2002.  Other documents were shredded in 1999 in an agreement between the archdiocese and its major insurance carriers.
- Church documents, including confidential files, memorandum, and correspondence relating to the sexual abuse of children and minors.
- Public pronouncements and statements by the archdiocese concerning the scope of clerical sexual abuse and the church’s response to the problem.
- Local and national media coverage of the sexual abuse problem in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
- Two listening sessions for victims of clergy sexual abuse held in October of 2002 at the Midwest Express Center in downtown Milwaukee.  These sessions were developed and co-sponsored by victims of clergy sexual abuse, community advocates, and officials from the archdiocese.  Victims and family members testified before a panel that included the Milwaukee District Attorney, newly appointed Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan and long-time auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba. The first of these sessions was open to the press and was widely covered in the local and national media.  Aurora Health officials, who hosted these sessions, transcribed written notes of both sessions.  Approximately 300-400 individuals participated.
-Nearly 11 hours of public testimony by victims before a combined session of the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committee in September of 2003.  The lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would place clergy on the list of mandatory reporters of childhood abuse, allow future underage victims of clergy abuse to file claims in Wisconsin and move forward the criminal and civil statutes of limitations.
- Accounts of sexual abuse by clergy and religious and the response from officials of these institutions submitted by members involved in the current group mediation.


Most evidence and information concerning clergy sexual misconduct in the archdiocese remains unavailable because church authorities will not release documents and records. The cumulative evidence from the above sources indicates, however, that:
- The Catholic leadership of the archdiocese knew that the sexual abuse of children and minors was a criminal act that caused long-term psychological and emotional damage to its victims.
- Sexual abuse by clergy was considered by church authorities to be a particularly grave and serious offense with serious spiritual consequences.
- The Milwaukee Archdiocese and at least some of the major religious orders operating within it knew that criminal sexual abuse by members of the clergy was occurring, mostly within parishes, schools and other family-based church institutions.
- When knowledge of criminal activity against children and minors was brought to the attention of church officials, these crimes were not reported to civil authorities.
- The archdiocese, under the direction of Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Bishop Richard Sklba, transferred to new church assignments clergy with a history of sexually victimizing children without notifying police, parishes, schools or communities of the criminal conduct of these priests and religious.
- Against the position of mainstream treatment providers, the archbishop repeatedly placed offenders in church operated facilities or programs where sexually abusive clergy were routinely reassigned to parishes instead of being professionally disciplined or dismissed.
- Parishes and communities were misled as to the true nature of both the transfer and the re-assignment of clergy sex offenders.
- Sexually abusive clergy, subsequent to transfer, committed further acts of sexual abuse against children and minors.
- These subsequent criminal acts by repeat offender clergy were not reported to civil authorities and led to either non-action, another ministerial transfer, “voluntary” retirement and sick-leave or aid in leaving the clerical state, and leaving, undetected by authorities, the state of Wisconsin.
- The archdiocese did not alert parishes and schools when sexually abusive clergy had been employed in their institutions, nor did they attempt to find additional victims and offer assistance, unless the abuse was made public through the media.
- The archdiocese, through its victim “outreach” program, Project Benjamin, has warned victims for years that legal claims against the church in Wisconsin could not be filed.
- The archdiocese, through the personnel of Project Benjamin, has repeatedly compromised victim confidentiality.
- The archdiocese, against the clinical recommendations of treatment providers, terminated or attempted to terminate mental health treatment for victims prematurely, in some cases dangerously jeopardizing needed and promised medical care.
- Archbishop Weakland and Bishop Sklba repeatedly refused for over a decade to meet with representatives of local clergy abuse victims’ organizations or encourage leaders of the church’s assistance agency designated for victims, Catholic Charities, to do so.
- The archdiocese, while claiming a public commitment to treat victims with compassion, repeatedly adopted aggressive legal tactics, even when offenders acknowledged to church authorities their guilt, including harassing victims for court costs after the 1995 and 1997 Supreme Court decisions and seeking judgments against victims for bringing civil cases and placing liens on their homes.
- Archbishop Weakland, unlike any other prelate in the United States, repeatedly made public comments, spanning several years, that were derogatory and insensitive to the plight of victims, including calling adolescent victims “seductive… street-wise…savvy” and victims that reported abuse “squealers.”
- The archdiocese, although claiming for over a decade that its primary mission is to aid victims of clerical abuse, has spent a greater percentage of church money reimbursing its lawyers than on assisting or compensating victims; under Archbishop Dolan that ratio has increased.
- Archbishop Dolan reversed the archdiocese’s repeated promise during the Summer and Fall of 2002 to release the names of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Number of clergy sex offenders in the archdiocese

In the most recent report on clergy sexual abuse, released in September 2003, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee revealed that 58 ordained men under the direct supervision of the Archbishop of Milwaukee—a number that does not include religious order priests which comprise nearly half of all ordained clergy in the archdiocese--have documented allegations of sexually assaulting minors. 

The archdiocese claims that reports concerning 10 of these individuals are “unsubstantiated,” but the criteria for substantiation have never been disclosed.  Some of these individuals appear to be under current investigation by church authorities.  Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the University of St. Thomas Law School, a Catholic institution in Minneapolis, has handled over 500 clergy abuse cases over the past 15 years for the church.  “False reports are extremely rare,” Schiltz told the New York Times last year.  There were less than 10 he “even suspected were false.”

Subtracting the 10 “unsubstantiated” reports, the archdiocese knows of 48 ordained men who have sexually assaulted youngsters.  Thirty-three of these men are alive.

Misleading Figure

This figure misrepresents, however, the true number of sexually abusive clergy known by church authorities to be operating in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee under the direct supervision of the archbishop.

Currently, there are 445 diocesan priests living in the nine-county archdiocese, 255 of them in public ministry.  The rest are retired, on leave, or working outside the archdiocese.

The archbishop is also the canonical supervisor of 361 religious order priests and brothers, 2,764 women religious and 163 ordained deacons. 

The problem of sexual abuse by members of religious order communities is well known by the American bishops.  Experts believe that the unique social and organizational features of religious life may actually exacerbate the problem of clerical abuse in some of these communities. 

For example, a long-established religious order in the archdiocese, the Capuchin Franciscans, has acknowledged that at least nine of its friars committed acts of sexual abuse or misconduct at its minor seminary located in Mt. Calvary.  Along with the school, the Capuchins operate numerous parishes and ministries, all under the jurisdiction of the archdiocese. 

Very conservatively, then, the number of clergy in the archdiocese reported for sexually abusing youngsters should double, to at least 110.  And this number estimates only the documented cases which, because of the underreporting discussed below, certainly falls far short of the true number of offenders in this archdiocese.  It can be safely presumed that most of these men and women are still living.

Finally, there is the problem of sexual abuse by non-ordained archdiocesan personnel, such as Catholic schoolteachers, lay ministers and counselors.  The archdiocese, with its almost 700,000 Catholics, employs hundreds of professionals and volunteers in its many parishes, schools, hospitals and other ministries.  The numbers of such individuals known by the archdiocese to have committed acts of sexual abuse remains undisclosed.


The number of victims assaulted by clergy, religious and archdiocesan personnel is difficult to ascertain.  Offenders rarely self-report and victims are extremely reluctant to come forward.

Some estimates, however, can be calculated by using the number of victims that have contacted the archdiocese.  That number can be compared to the reporting rate among the general population or a subset of the population, such as youngsters sexually abused in public schools.

Studies have long shown that sexual assault and abuse, occurring at any age and no matter the perpetrator’s identity, are grossly underreported. It is estimated that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of these crimes are ever reported.

For instance, a recent report by the New York Times summarizing the results of current studies of sexual abuse among school age students found that only 7 percent of these incidents were ever reported. 

Number of victims in the archdiocese

According to the archdiocese’s September 2003 report, over the last nine years victims abused by clergy in the archdiocese have made approximately 300 reports to archdiocesan officials. 

Court documents reveal that the archdiocese, which claims it had no formal record keeping procedures for such reports, recorded some 29 complaints of clergy sexual abuse of minors before 1992 in which administrative action was taken.

1992 to 1994 were years of intense media attention to the problem of clergy sexual abuse in the archdiocese.  By that time the archdiocese had established an office for dealing with sexual abuse complaints.  It is unclear why the number of sexual abuse reports received during these years, which would have been substantial, are absent from the September 2003 archdiocesan summary.

When factoring in religious orders then, and using only the archdiocese’s September 2003 figures, it is reasonable to assume that at least 600 victims have contacted church authorities to report sexual abuse against minors in the archdiocese.

Placing the reporting rate at 10 percent, or 3 percent higher than the reporting rate for the nation’s schools, the total number of victims from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee would be approximately 6,000.

How many of these children and youngsters would never have been abused had the church discontinued its secret practice of placing clergy offenders back into parishes and schools will never be known.

“Not Boston”

In a nationwide survey by the New York Times, the only one of its kind yet compiled, the Milwaukee Archdiocese ranked 11 among the 168 dioceses in the United States in the number of abusive priests.

In March of 2002, Archbishop Rembert Weakland told priests in a confidential email that the number of priests in the archdiocese with reports of sexually abusing minors was 35.

 The number of abusive clerics in Boston, the archbishop insisted in a rare television interview, “doesn’t tell the story.”  Boston and Milwaukee were “being lumped together,” he complained.  If the archdiocese was being “cautious” about giving numbers it was because “the press gives the impression that Boston had 80 priests accused, therefore there were 80 out there picking on little kids and that would be a false image.”

“Milwaukee,” insisted the archbishop “is not Boston.”

In Boston, the percentage of abusive priests is 5.3 percent.  In Milwaukee, the percent of accused priests, even at the underreported number of 35, is 7.2 percent.


The archdiocese has released partial figures detailing the costs of clergy sexual abuse to Catholics in the archdiocese of Milwaukee.  The archdiocese has not disclosed the full financial burden of assisting offender priests, including treatment and living expenses, health care, retirement benefits and other related costs.   

Under Archbishop Weakland, twice as much money was paid for attorney fees than for therapy and assistance to victims of sexual abuse.

In the first year of Archbishop Weakland’s successor, Timothy Dolan, that ratio has increased dramatically from 2:1 to 5:1.  Even when including out of court settlements, the archdiocese has paid twice as much to attorneys as to victims under the new archbishop.

Culture of secrecy

Although the Church has long acknowledged and grappled with the problem of sexual abuse by clergy, it has rarely done so openly. 

The Vatican archives house a number of documents related to clerical sexual misconduct over the centuries but most of these materials are unavailable to even Church scholars and historians.  Canon law requires that every diocese and religious order province maintain what is titled a “secret archive” for all material related to clerical misconduct and other sensitive matters. 

Ample evidence exists, nonetheless, that Church authorities since at least the Middle Ages recognized the seriousness of the problem.  Sexual misconduct by priests, especially against children and minors, was considered a particularly grave offense that required swift punitive and canonical action, as well as an extraordinary degree of secrecy in its handling.

The secrecy was typically justified to “prevent scandal” and engineered to protect the public integrity and teaching authority of the Church.

A recently discovered 1963 Vatican document signed by Pope John XXIII provides extensive instructions for maintaining strict secrecy in dealing with sexually abusive clergy.  The directives prescribe excommunication for all parties, including the victim, if the incidents are revealed outside of the canonical proceedings conducted by the offender’s fellow clerics. 

1985 warning

At their 1985 biannual Fall meeting in Washington, D.C., the American bishops were given a confidential study detailing the nature, scope and potential financial liability of the problem of pedophile clergy in the United States.  The director of the Church’s largest treatment institute and legal experts in American and Church law authorized the lengthy report. The document’s conclusions underscored the clinically incurable nature of pedophilia and provided extensive recommendations on how to deal with the problem. 

The 1985 study was delivered with an unusually severe warning to the bishops that immediate steps needed to be taken to address the problem of sexually abusive clergy or the results could be catastrophic for the American church. 

Rather than following the report’s warning, however, bishops accelerated the transfer of abusive priests out of their respective jurisdictions to avoid criminal prosecution.  An extensive section of the 1985 report describes in detail the child sexual abuse reporting laws in jurisdictions across the United States and explains how those laws were, or might, be circumvented. 

Some offenders were secretly placed in church operated “treatment” or “retreat” facilities.  After a period of time, bishops and religious order provincials would return the offender, still unreported, to new ministries and parishes.

A number of these facilities were located in New Mexico and operated by a Catholic religious order dedicated to the care of priests. Criminal investigations and civil complaints in the 1990’s eventually led to the closing of these centers.  Some dozen other such centers still operate in the United States and Canada.

As for unsuspecting Catholics, various “cover” stories were devised to explain the often abrupt departures of clergy.  In the Catholic Church’s management structure, no lay body or individual exercises authority over the hiring, placement, review, transfer or dismissal of clergy.  Local bishops make all such decisions. 

If questioned, church officials typically responded that suddenly absent clergy were on leave for personal or medical reasons.  Others were on “special assignment” helping overburdened ministries elsewhere.   

Authority of the bishop

Recent revisions in Canon law due to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church have left unchanged the unique institutional authority of the Catholic hierarchy, especially the canonical power vested in the local bishop in all matters of church policy and practice.

Although divided across the United States into a myriad of non-profit corporations, the Catholic Church has a unique social and legal status, due in part to the constitutional protections afforded religious practice in the United States.  This is especially true in Wisconsin, which extended those protections in two mid-1990’s Supreme Court rulings shielding religious organizations from civil liability for sexually abusive clergy.

The Catholic Church also enjoys a profound spiritual, organizational and managerial tie to the Vatican, which operates as a sovereign state and enjoys special diplomatic status recognized by the United States government. This designated status has led some observers to suggest a kind of corporate immunity from child sexual abuse laws exists.

At their biannual national conference in the early 1980’s, some bishops met in a private seminar to discuss cases of priest sexual abuse.  The suggestion was offered that members consider delivering “sensitive” information to the Papal Nuncio, since his pouch was covered by diplomatic immunity.  Unknown to the seminar leader (the bishop who made the suggestion), the comments were tape-recorded. That bishop is now the Archbishop of Cleveland and his diocese is currently the subject of a grand jury investigation into clergy sexual abuse.

Catholic opinion

In the Summer of 2002, the American bishops enacted canonical revisions of their legal structure in response to the outpouring of criticism by American Catholics concerning their handling of sexually abusive clergy and the lack of pastoral response towards victims.

In January of that year startling revelations of widespread, decades-long sexual abuse of children and institutional cover-up in the Boston Archdiocese were appearing in newspapers and television stories across the United States. 

Opinion polls conducted since the early 1990’s show that a large majority of American Catholics, nearly 80% in a recent survey, believe that any member of the clergy who has committed an act of sexual abuse against a minor should be removed from the clerical state.  An even larger majority, 97% in a 2002 Gallup poll, further believes that a cardinal or bishop known to have transferred a sex offender cleric should be removed from his office. 

An extensive Dallas Morning News 2002 survey of public reports and court records from around the United States demonstrated that at least two thirds of the current hierarchy of the Catholic Church has engaged in the practice of secretly transferring known sex offenders. 

Although a handful of bishops have resigned over the past two years when their own involvement in sexual misconduct was made public, only one member of the American hierarchy, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, has resigned as a consequence of transferring known sex offender clergy. 

Throughout his final year in office, the Cardinal was under extraordinary public pressure to resign.  The continual release and publication of documents in the Boston Globe detailed the Cardinal’s routine practice of transferring known sex offender priests.  But most observers believe it was the unprecedented action of some 50 Boston priests’ public call for his resignation in December of 2002 that finally forced the Vatican to remove the senior prelate. 

The unique authority of the bishop’s office has not been altered during the current crisis.  To the disappointment of some American Catholics pressing for reform, there is no indication from either the Vatican or the American bishops that this is likely to occur. 

Any lay church involvement in dealing with abusive priests, as in the establishment of new sexual abuse review panels required by the American bishops in their 2002 revisions, is solely dependent on the local bishop.  Cases are only reviewed if the bishop deems it necessary.  The board’s access to information and witnesses is entirely at the bishop’s discretion and all recommendations are non-binding.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee

In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, as with other dioceses around the United States, the existence of sexually abusive clergy and the church’s awareness of the problem began surfacing in the late 1970’s.  Knowledge of the problem was obtained largely through media investigations or criminal and civil cases.  This trend continued throughout the 1980’s and peaked in the early to mid-1990’s when the issue mushroomed into a national scandal. 

1992 was a watershed year in public awareness of the crisis, nationally and locally. 

Extensively reported cases of clerical sexual misconduct by archdiocesan clergy appeared that year and the years following in the pages of the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel and in ongoing local television news coverage.  Criminal and civil cases, such as those brought in 1993 against several Capuchin-Franciscan priests and brothers operating St. Lawrence High School Seminary outside of Fond du Lac, gained national notoriety as well.

Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions

Given the typical delay in reporting childhood sexual abuse until the victim is well into adulthood, most criminal cases fell, and continue to fall, outside the criminal statute of limitation.  Civil cases, then, became the principal means employed by victims to expose clergy sex offenders, force church authorities to answer for managerial actions, and obtain key documents and testimony concerning abusive clergy.  Knowledge of the extensive nature of clergy sexual abuse and the role of church officials in Boston, for instance, resulted almost entirely from civil proceedings.    A 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, Pritzloff v. the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, held that civil cases filed against religious organizations for such acts as negligent supervision of sex offender clergy would entangle the judiciary in the free exercise of religion.  A 1997 decision, Doe v. the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, essentially ensured that victims of clergy sexual abuse in Wisconsin would have no civil redress against the archdiocese and the religious orders operating within it.

According to attorneys litigating or preparing to litigate cases against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in the mid-1990’s, over one hundred clergy sexual abuse cases were dropped due to the decision.

In all likelihood, if the legal climate in Massachusetts were that of Wisconsin, the current scandal, which has removed hundreds of sex offenders from ministry with children, reformed Canon law and brought forward many thousands of victims, would probably never have engulfed the Catholic Church.

No Legal Remedy

During 2002 and 2003 new cases were filed in three Wisconsin dioceses which asserted a new cause of action of intentional fraud for concealing knowledge of sexually abusive priests.  Although a similar cause of action is moving cases through the courts in Michigan, the Wisconsin cases have been dismissed pursuant to Pritzloff and Doe.  A few of those cases remain on appeal. 

There is pending legislation that addresses the unique legal climate for clergy abuse victims in Wisconsin which includes proposals extending the civil and criminal statutes of limitation and placing clergy on the list of professionals mandated to report child sexual abuse. There is also a provision permitting those abused by clergy as minors to bring a cause of action against a religious organization if church managers knew of the cleric’s abusive behavior. 

The bill’s current language, however, does not permit for any retroactivity in the statutes.  In other words, current victims will remain without recourse to Wisconsin courts. 

Effect of court decisions

The effect of the Supreme Court rulings on victims who sought to expose priest sex offenders and the managerial actions of bishops has been devastating and demoralizing. 

After most cases were dropped in 1995, church lawyers aggressively sought to recover court costs from victims, going so far as to put liens on victims’ homes.  It made no difference that in at least one case the perpetrator admitted he had committed the crime.  As of October 2002, this type of punitive action against victims was still being taken by the archdiocese.

The Wisconsin court rulings also affected public awareness of the problem. 

In the Spring of 2002, with revelations from Boston mounting, Liz Piasecki, appointed by Archbishop Weakland to manage the church’s public response to the problem, told the Christian Science Monitor that the problem of abusive priests, unlike Boston, didn’t exist in Milwaukee. 

The proof? 

“There is no civil litigation here, like Boston,” according to Piasecki.

Problem would be over

In his last public interview on the matter of clerical sexual abuse before the Boston scandal erupted in 2002, Archbishop Weakland told the Milwaukee Journal in late 1994 that the problem of sexual abuse and the church would be “over” in “one or two years.”  

The archbishop’s confidence, undoubtedly, reflected that of his legal team on the eve of their Supreme Court victories.  But he also discerned a unique opportunity to end local media scrutiny of the problem, something that had been dogging him since the late 1980’s.

Public spokesperson for the church

Archbishop Weakland was a visible and adept media personality and appeared to relish his role as public spokesperson for the Catholic Church. The archbishop often argued that a new public presence was required of post-Vatican II bishops where the church was called to cooperate fruitfully and openly with the struggles of secular society.  His position in the 1980’s as Chair of the American Bishop’s Pastoral on the Church and the Economy, along with his opinions on the role of women and laity in the church, brought him national recognition.

The archbishop, however, found himself at odds with the press over the issue of sexually abusive clergy.

Still, according to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal, the archbishop was pleased in November of 1992 when the paper offered to publish, unedited, an essay by him on the topic of clergy sexual abuse for the front page of its Sunday edition. In fact, the paper had earlier that year reprinted a lengthy and glowing biography of Archbishop Weakland written by the archbishop’s close friend, journalist Paul Wilkes.

The paper, however, also decided to publish a reply to the archbishop by a local victim of clergy sexual abuse that appeared the following Sunday, also unedited and on the front page. The paper took the unusual step of providing the archbishop with a copy of the response before publication.

The next month the archbishop wrote in his weekly “Herald of Hope” column for the Catholic Herald:

As I travel around the archdiocese, I find that the anger of so many Catholics against TV (especially channels 4 and 12), and against the two dailies in Milwaukee has reached an unprecedented peak. 

Their feelings are readily understandable.  Each day they open the papers to find another article that puts the church in a bad light.  The in-thing on TV in the nation is bashing the Catholic Church.  The talk shows, the investigative reporting, all find a field day in our church.

Personally, I do not feel that we Catholics will ever again relate in the same way to the local media because of the procedures used and the imbalance of the reporting.  Anger does not and will not dissipate rapidly.  My perception is that for many years to come the Catholic Church will exercise an extreme caution with regard to the media in Milwaukee, built on deep distrust and disgust.

The next year, the archbishop’s anger had, indeed, not dissipated.

He sent a letter to over 1,000 archdiocesan priests and religious leaders attacking the media for its “vicious and vindictive” treatment of the Catholic Church.  He singled out the Milwaukee Journal in particular.  He recommended the letter be read from Sunday pulpits. 

The paper had just reported on documents which revealed that the archbishop had transferred convicted sex offender Father William Effinger across various parishes in the archdiocese after discovering he was abusing children.

That same year, Cardinal Law of Boston, also facing media scrutiny, was likewise railing against the “anti-Catholic” bias of the press, calling the “wrath of God” down on the Boston Globe.

Media relations improve

By 1995, however, the two Milwaukee papers had merged.  There was a shake-up of the editorial staff, including the retirement of the senior editor of the Milwaukee Journal who assumed a position at Columbia University. 

A long-time columnist for the Milwaukee Journal, Joel McNally, reported in an article that appeared in the April 6, 2002 edition of the Madison Capitol Times that an “entourage of church officials” met with the paper’s new editor Mary Jo Mesiner in 1995.  They “demanded” she “kill” an investigative series about to be published on the Catholic Church and sexual abuse. 

One article was an extensive interview with a former priest who was welcomed in 1992 by Archbishop Weakland to the archdiocese even though he had recently been arrested for sexually assaulting a boy in Superior.  In the story, he not only admits to sexually abusing dozens of children but also shares his knowledge of other abusive priests, including a “ring” of at least four or five clerics from Milwaukee and Green Bay who were regularly traveling to Mexico for sex with boys. 

Other reports in the series detailed how the archdiocese had paid millions of dollars in hush money to silence victims and the aggressive legal strategy of archdiocesan lawyers.

The award winning religion reporter who wrote the series had been covering the sexual abuse problem in the Milwaukee archdiocese for nearly a decade.  According to McNally, she was “pulled off the religion beat and exiled to covering suburban village board meetings.”

The series never ran.

Motions dropped

More significantly, the paper had filed motions to unseal court documents in civil cases filed against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  These documents included depositions of clergy sex offenders, bishops, and archdiocesan senior management, as well as personnel records and reports concerning sexually abusive clergy. 

Without explanation, the paper dropped its motions in 1995. 

“The Milwaukee Journal in 1995 would have uncovered the information that the Boston Globe did that broke open this scandal,” according to McNally, referring to a Massachusetts Superior Court 2002 ruling that unsealed documents in cases filed against the Boston Archdiocese.  “Who knows how many kids might have been spared,” lamented the former columnist. 

In 2003, the Boston Globe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its reporting of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

Insurers unsympathetic

For the archbishop there were also ongoing concerns related to the costs of managing the problem of abusive clergy. 

After years of litigation with insurance carriers who refused to pay for sexual abuse claims, a settlement was reached between the archdiocese and its principal carriers in 1999. 

The archbishop was particularly vexed at the insurance industry’s refusal to cover the costs related to sexual abuse by priests.  In 1994 he blamed insurance lawyers for the aggressive legal tactics that “some dioceses” were taking, including counter-claiming against parents and victims.  “So the insurance lawyers are our major problem.” 

As for Milwaukee, the archdiocese would sue the insurance companies for not covering costs.  “I feel that insurance companies are not sympathetic to the pastoral issues of bishops,” the archbishop complained. 

Documents shredded

According to an April 2002 Washington Post story, the Milwaukee Archdiocese insisted in their 1999 settlement with insurance carriers that all documents related to the contested cases be shredded.  


According to Judge Hansher, “The archdiocese wanted to destroy papers because they showed how much money it had spent on treatment, litigation and settlements related to sexual abuse.”

State of the art

The same year the archdiocese was shredding documents, a Fond du Lac pastor, Fr. John O’Brien, was pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a youth who was seeing him for counseling.

When Father O’Brien was sentenced, archdiocesan officials were nowhere to be found, although the priest not only served in Fond du Lac parishes but also was the long- time guidance counselor at the local archdiocesan high school.

The news barely received public notice.

For years, however, Archbishop Weakland boasted he had created the premier institutional response for reaching out to victims, offenders, parishes and schools which he designated “Project Benjamin.”  

“If you were to call the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington, D.C. and ask what program to look at, they would say, ‘Look at Milwaukee, it’s the state-of-the-art,’” the archbishop proudly proclaimed in 1994.

When abuse occurred in a Catholic parish or ministry, the pastoral presence of the archdiocese, he repeatedly claimed, was swift, visible and effective.

According to the program’s 1992 manual, the presence of the bishop in the parish affected by sexual abuse is “essential” and he would be visiting “as soon as possible, at least within 2-3 weeks.” 

Project Benjamin would offer immediate assistance to those victimized, not only the “primary victims but others including family members and parishioners,” conducting therapy and leading support groups.

Project Benjamin officials would meet immediately with the parish staff and prepare for the bishop’s visit.  Included in the meeting would be the program director, the vicar of clergy, an attorney, mental health professionals and a trained group facilitator. 

The program would then “facilitate meetings of parishioners, teens and children to begin the healing process through receiving information, processing feelings and praying together.” 

Nowhere to be found

When over a half a dozen priests were removed from active parish ministry in 2002, however, the two bishops from the Milwaukee Archdiocese and Project Benjamin officials were invisible to the affected congregations which were experiencing the shock and upheaval of learning their pastors and priests were sex offenders.

Project Benjamin’s part-time director told a women’s spirituality group in May of 2002, with a reporter present, that the archdiocese was “operating like a fire department.”  There was little that was being done “outside of answering immediate calls.” 

The Project Benjamin director also said that the internal guidelines requiring reporting of sexual abuse to civil authorities had not always been observed.

That same month the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board called for the replacement of Project Benjamin by a “program not so directly tied to the Catholic Church.” 

At the very least the Milwaukee Roman Catholic Archdiocese needs to follow up on a community commission’s recommendation to contract with one or more outside agencies to provide victim assistance either as a supplement to the archdiocese’s Project Benjamin or an alternative to it.

The recommendation was not followed.

Prediction vindicated

Just a few months before the troubles in Boston began to appear and spread to Milwaukee, Archbishop Weakland was preparing to enter an active retirement as one of the nation’s leading Catholic liberal churchmen.  His earlier prediction to the Milwaukee Journal in 1994 that the problem of clergy sexual abuse would be over in a year or two appeared fully vindicated.

The archdiocese could not be sued in Wisconsin courts due to the 1995 and 1997 Supreme Court rulings and victims could quietly but aggressively be pursued for court costs. 

The defeat of a clergy reporting bill in 1993 assured that the archbishop would never have to report the abuse of a child. He could transfer or retire abusive clergy without ever contacting the police and no law would be broken.

 Meddling reporters were no longer investigating clerical sexual abuse in Milwaukee.  The legal challenge to unseal court documents by the state’s leading newspaper had fortuitously disappeared.

Information on the cost of the abusive clergy would remain secret and documents could be safely shredded. 

As for victims, according to the Project Benjamin director, the church would “offer to listen” to those who “cooperated” and “forgave” but would, if need be, “become adversarial.”  Victims were told when contacting the program, “You can’t sue the church in Wisconsin—so you’re not going to get any money.”  If counseling was offered treatment would be managed by the church and terminated at will and without independent review, despite the recommendations of providers.  

No one was any longer demanding that the archbishop meet with victims or their families, much less victim organizations or advocates.  In the meantime, clergy with known histories of abusing youngsters remained in ministry unknown to parishioners or parents.

Last hurdle

Known only to a handful of individuals, however, was one last hurdle for the archbishop to overcome in order for him to permanently shut the door on the sexual abuse problem.  It concerned his own involvement in what he would later call “an inappropriate relationship” with an adult male and a secret church settlement in 1998 to cover it up.

By that year civil claims against churches in Wisconsin for clerical sexual misconduct were virtually impossible.  Yet, unknown to Catholics, the archdiocese would pay nearly half a million dollars in “hush money” to an adult male who claimed that he had been sexually abused by the archbishop.

A prominent Catholic foundation, which was the source of the money, had no knowledge of the payoff.  The foundation policy was that no monies could be used by the archdiocese to cover expenses related to sexually abusive clergy.

A 1980 letter from the archbishop to the alleged victim acknowledges a sexual relationship.  The man, Paul Marcoux, was a former Marquette theology student.  He first met the archbishop in 1979 to discuss a possible vocation.

Sometime after the alleged incident, the archbishop privately “confided” his “improper relationship” to Milwaukee District Attorney, E. Michael McCann.  When the story was made public in late May 2002 by ABC news and the Marcoux letter published in the New York Times, McCann would say that he had determined “in his mind” that “no crime had taken place.”  No questions were asked of the archbishop. 

Why the Archbishop of Milwaukee confided in the county’s chief law enforcement officer the intimate details of his sexual life remains a mystery.  According to the district attorney, a prominent Milwaukee Catholic, he and Archbishop Weakland were “friends” but “not good friends.”

Time for renewal

By 1999, the troubles with Paul Marcoux believed to be safely behind him, Archbishop Weakland was determined to complete a Ph.D. at Columbia University in sacred music.

It had been a difficult and tumultuous decade for the prelate, at least regarding the clergy sexual abuse crisis.  In late 1994, at the height of the public crisis, the archbishop confided to a reporter that it had taken quite a toll on him: “I have become a lot grayer.  I really have.  I’ve aged…I don’t think [the clergy who have abused children] have any idea of the repercussions of their acts on other people.”

It was time for spiritual and personal renewal.  What better salve to help mend the wounds of the difficult decade than a retreat into his great avocation, the diaphanous world of ancient Christian chant? 

The archbishop’s 465 page doctoral thesis was entitled, “The Office Antiphons of the Ambrosian Chant.”  He received the added honor of “with distinction” when awarded his diploma.

Topic not raised

Rested, Archbishop Weakland returned to Milwaukee with his diploma in hand and ready to complete another work of sacred aesthetics, what would be his signature project as archbishop, the renovation of the downtown Cathedral.  The archbishop soon found himself in trouble with Vatican officials and conservative Catholics, as he had in the past, this time over the new design for the church.  For a short while, construction was halted. 

But, as he had often managed to do, the resourceful prelate found a way to overcome obstacles and completed the Cathedral just in time for his final year as archbishop.

By late 2001, with his ten million-dollar cathedral renovation project underway, the archbishop felt comfortable enough with the press to grant the Milwaukee Journal an extensive interview, something he had not done since 1994. 

The topic of sexual abuse and the clergy was not raised.

Public Disclosure

The Marcoux settlement became a national story in May 2002 just weeks before the American bishops were to meet in Dallas for an unprecedented vote to revise Canon law in order address the sexual abuse problem.  The large settlement--given the church’s virtual immunity in Wisconsin courts and the archbishop’s professed innocence--brought criticism from Catholics around the country, including those sympathetic with the archbishop.  Some maintained that his relationship proved the oppressive nature of church law on celibacy and homosexuality.  As one Catholic observer told the New York Times, upon reading the archbishop’s letter to Marcoux, the archbishop had “loved too much” or “loved too well.” 

For clergy sexual assault victims, who had lost their opportunity to proceed with their cases in Wisconsin courts, news of the settlement was particularly agonizing. 

How could the Church, which immediately after the Pritzloff decision offered those raped or sodomized by clergy $5,000.00 each for their signatures on confidential settlement agreements, provide such an enormous sum of church money to an adult for an incident the archbishop insisted never took place?

Unrecorded reports

It is not known how many cases of sexually abusive clergy Archbishop Weakland inherited when he assumed his new post in 1977. 

Of the hundreds of known reports of abuse, only three were recorded by the archdiocese under Archbishop Weakland’s predecessor, Archbishop Willliam Cousins, who served from 1956-1977. 

Archbishop Cousins appears to have rarely kept records of sexual abuse complaints.  If he did, they have disappeared.

Deluged with complaints

For example, Father Fred Bistricki was pastor of Holy Assumption parish on Milwaukee’s south side when a deluge of reports of his abusive behavior made their way to archdiocesan officials in the early 1970’s.

One report came from the new associate pastor at Father Bistricki’s West Allis parish, another from the principal of its grade school.  In 1974, fourteen parents confronted the priest at his residence about his sexual misconduct with youngsters.  A letter by one parishioner reveals repeated efforts to warn Archbishop Cousins and Father William Fleiss, the archdiocese’s chancellor. 

Father Bistricki was finally removed from public ministry in 2002 for sexually abusing youngsters.  Testimony in Milwaukee in October of that year revealed that the priest had admitted to treatment specialists in the early 1990’s that he fantasized about sexual contact with minors.  One parent whose sons were abused by Father Bistricki informed Bishop Sklba in 1997 about the priest, but the bishop made no record of the meeting and the archdiocese left Father Bistricki in ministry. 

Today Father Bistricki lives alone in a West Side Milwaukee home willed to him by a parishioner.   Retired Milwaukee Judge Francis Fiorenza ruled in June 2003 that abuse reports against the priest were credible and the priest was formally suspended from practicing public ministry. 

Father Bistricki is contesting his suspension to Rome, a process that could take several years.  His current “supervision” consists of a once a month meeting with an archdiocesan representative. 

Promoted to bishop

Father Fleiss was eventually promoted to bishop of the Superior Diocese where he has been under fire for transferring sex offender priests across northern Wisconsin parishes. 

One priest under Bishop Fleiss’ authority was convicted of sexual assault of a child and designated by the state in 1999 as a “dangerous sexual predator.” After the bishop intervened with the judge handling the case, the priest was allowed to serve his probation in a church retreat house outside of St. Louis.  The priest is the only convicted sex offender in state history allowed to leave Wisconsin for his probation. 

The priest was arrested in the Fall of 2003 after he attempted to block access to his private room by Wisconsin correction authorities checking on his progress.  When they entered the priest’s room, officials discovered child pornography downloaded on the priest’s private computer.

The secret of St. John de Nepomuc

Another archdiocesan employee under the authority of Archbishop Cousins was Gary Kazmarek.  Kazmarek was discovered by church officials to be sexually assaulting scores of children at St. John de Nepomuc parish and grade school on the west side of Milwaukee.

The parish was named after the 14th century Bulgarian saint who was martyred by King Wenceslas.  The king’s wife had gone to the saint for confession and the king ordered the priest to divulge its contents.  The saint refused and was drowned.

In the span of a few short years, children at St. John de Nepomuc would have to contend with no less than three serial child sex offenders from the archdiocese:  Gary Kazmarek, Father Seigfried Widera and Father Franklin Becker.

Kazmarek taught in various Catholic schools in Milwaukee until reports of his sexually assaulting children at St. John’s became so numerous that the archdiocese had little choice but to intervene.  Milwaukee church officials quietly assisted his move out of the state. 

A popular coach, Kazmarek had sexually abused, raped and sodomized countless children at his home near the parish.

Church officials called on Anthony Kutchen, a psychologist whose son attended the St. John’s grade school, to meet with at least two dozen children victimized by the teacher. 

“Dr. Kutchen met with us for a few minutes and told us it wasn’t our fault and that was about it,” recalls one victim who was a sixth grader at the time.  As for the teacher, “He just disappeared and it was never brought up again.”

No report was filed with the police.

The victim recalls, however, that the nun who taught his class approached him one afternoon soon after the teacher’s disappearance.  “If the new pastor had been here when these things were going on,” she lamented, “this never would have happened.”

The new pastor was Father Sigfried Widera, one of the most prolific sex offender priests in the archdiocese.

Transferred in the late 1970’s to a diocese in California, Father Widera was replaced by Father Franklin Becker, yet another serial child sex offender.

New Assignments

Kazmarek took a new teaching assignment in a Catholic school in a Louisville, Kentucky.  There he was again discovered by church authorities to be sexually assaulting children.  As in Milwaukee, church authorities helped Kazmarek leave the state without notifying authorities.

Kazmarek returned to Wisconsin to teach in Madison area schools where he continued to assault children.  He was arrested and convicted of child sexual assault in Wisconsin in the 1980’s.

  The former teacher was extradited to Kentucky in 2003 when charges were brought against him for his assaults in Louisville.  He was convicted in January 2004 of multiple counts of sexually assaulting children and sentenced to thirteen years in prison.

The Diocese of Louisville has settled seven claims with victims of the former teacher. 

Dr. Kutchin was named by Archbishop Weakland in February 2002 to a lay commission to review the archdiocese’s handling of sexual abuse cases and make recommendations, if necessary.

 In June 2002, he was appointed to chair the commission.  

Inherited problems

While the extent of the problem under Archbishop Cousins will probably never be known, documents and testimony reveal that an alarming number of complaints against clergy would flood Archbishop Weakland’s office through much of his tenure. 

As the elected leader of the worldwide order of Benedictine monks, the archbishop already had managerial experience dealing with sexually abusive clergy before arriving in Milwaukee. He also had what he calls an “intellectual” curiosity about pedophilia since at least his college years and appears to have been a somewhat avid reader on the subject.

One abusive priest that would require the new archbishop’s immediate attention was Father Sigfreid Widera, who was assigned to St. John’s soon after Gary Kazmarek’s departure. 

After leaving St. John de Nepomuc, Father Widera was transferred to a West Allis parish where he is known to have sexually abused dozens of children.  Another re-assignment quickly followed, this time to a Port Washington parish.  It was there, soon after the West Allis transfer in 1972, that he befriended an 11 year-old student from the church’s grade school. 

Father Widera would hug the child and force his fingers into her genital area.  When the child would protest that it was wrong, Father Widera assured her it was not “because he was a priest.”  On several occasions, Father Widera instructed the child to touch his penis.  When the child began avoiding the priest, he had the student’s teacher bring her to the rectory for “special assignments.”  He would order the child to perform oral sex on him.

“I was scared and crying but he told me God wanted me to do this for him,” according to the youngster.

Eventually the victim told the priest that she was having her period.  He “thanked me and told me never to tell anyone and that it must always be between God and us.” 

The next year Father Widera was convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in his car while on a trip with two other minors. He was sentenced to three-years probation. 

Father Widera was ordered by the court to “have no contacts either professionally or socially (with minors) in Ozaukee County,” where the Port Washington parish was located. 

In June of 1976, a full year before his probation was scheduled to end, Father Widera was assigned to the associate pastor position of St. Andrew’s parish in Delavan, Wisconsin.

Reassigned to California

In January of 1977, Widera was reassigned to a diocese in California. 

Although Father Widera was working in California, Archbishop Weakland was required by Canon law to complete the transfer of ecclesiastical control over him to the Orange County Diocese.  He did so in 1981.  California church records show Father Widera was “removed” from public ministry in 1985.

In March of 2003, Father Widera leapt to his death from a hotel roof in Mexico.

Mexican authorities, working with U.S. federal marshals, were on the verge of capturing the priest to bring him back to Wisconsin, where a 2002 police investigation had uncovered dozens of victims, to face multiple counts of sexual assault. 

Because Father Widera had left the state before the statute of limitations had expired on his crimes, the sexual assaults were still prosecutable under Wisconsin law.

Two brothers, two states

Since at least 1973, Father Widera had traveled to California with children from Wisconsin parishes. During one such trip in 1976, he sexually assaulted a West Allis youngster.  The victim subsequently discovered that Father Widera was sexually abusing his younger brother as well.

In 2003, the California legislature eliminated the civil statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.  To address the problem of past victims, the lawmakers unanimously passed a law opening a one-year window to bring civil claims.   The victim from West Allis who Father Widera took to California in 1976 filed a civil claim in California against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for transferring the priest.  Because the victim’s brother’s abuse by the priest occurred in Wisconsin, he has no such legal recourse.

At least seven victims of Father Widera filed lawsuits in California in 2003 against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for sending him unreported to that state.

Another California connection

           Another Milwaukee priest who assaulted youngsters at St John de Nepomuc was Father Franklin Becker.  The priest, it turns out, also made his way to California where he assaulted children. 

Father Becker, who currently lives in Mayville, was arrested in 2003 for sexually abusing a 13 year-old while in California working at St. Brigid Catholic Church in Pacific Beach in the 1970’s.   The criminal complaint includes two counts of oral copulation and two counts of child molestation.

Father Becker was asked at the time to leave St. Brigid’s by the pastor.  He returned to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee where he continued to sexually abuse minors. 

After he returned from California, one of Father Becker’s Wisconsin victims was an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Parish in Lyons where the priest befriended the youngster. The priest was transferred from Lyons to a Milwaukee parish but he continued to write the youngster, sending money and gifts.  He would have the youth stay overnight with him in the rectory of the new parish.

One evening the priest offered the boy alcohol.  Then he “showed albums of pictures of several other boys he was ‘friends’ with just like me.”  The pictures were of youngsters “all partially clothed” and he took pictures of the youth as well.  The priest instructed the boy to sleep with him and, in the middle of the night, he climbed on top of the youngster and performed oral sex.

The next day, Father Becker had the youngster serve as altar boy for his morning mass.

Ordained in 1964, Father Becker served as curate at Holy Assumption in West Allis, and numerous parishes in Milwaukee, including his assignment at St. John de Nepomuc.  On October 1, 1991 he was classified as “waiting for assignment” by the archdiocese due to abuse allegations but he continued to function as a priest in various parishes.   In July 2002 he was formally removed from performing ministry. 

Pedophile lend-lease program

The civil claims in California against the Milwaukee Archdiocese won a unanimous court of appeals decision in the Fourth District Court in October of 2003.   In January 2004 the California Supreme Court declined to hear the church’s appeal and the cases are moving forward.

The appeals court upheld the decision that the Orange County transfer in 1981 by Archbishop Weakland “amounted to intentional conduct expressly aimed at or targeting California,” and that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee “knew that the decision would cause harm in the state.”

Writing for the court, Justice Richard D. Fybel concluded that:    

The evidence supports the conclusion the Milwaukee Archdiocese intentionally sent Widera to California to get him out of Wisconsin where he had been convicted of sexual perversion against a boy and could create further problems for the Milwaukee Archdiocese.  As the trial court concluded, the evidence is certainly sufficient to show that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee chose to place this troublesome member of its clergy here in California as a sort of lend-lease program with the hope that he would be out of their sight and out of their jurisdiction.  By sending a known pedophile into California, the Milwaukee Archdiocese aimed its intentional conduct directly at the state. 

The California court concluded:  “Having sent Widera into California knowing he was a convicted child abuser and a pedophile, the Milwaukee Archdiocese reasonably could expect to be hauled into court in California to answer for the consequences of its actions.”

Early window

The Father Widera transfer provides an early window into how Archbishop Weakland would handle the scores of sex offender clerics that would come to his attention over the next twenty-five years.  The archbishop’s management of abusive priests, victims and public concern, even during times of intense scrutiny and pressure, would remain remarkably consistent.

In 1978, a 17 year-old student attending Pius X High School in Milwaukee wrote to Archbishop Weakland that he had been sexually abused four years earlier by Father Richard Nichols in the sacristy of his church after serving mass.  Archbishop Weakland wrote back, “One must have compassion for sinners” and suggested that the victim “grow spiritually from the experience.” 

No report was made to the police concerning Father Nichols’ assault although it was still prosecutable under the criminal statute at the time of the report to Weakland.

Father Nichols’ first assignment was at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and parochial school in the early 1960’s.  One child from the grade school was in first grade when the priest approached him in the school hallway.  The victim, now a police officer, said that on at “least a dozen occasions” he was cornered by the priest who would wait for the hallways to empty and “then slip his hand down the front of my pants and fondle my penis.”  The victim’s family moved from the neighborhood the next year.

Father Nichols went on to develop a thriving practice in child psychology that in large part was due to a reliable stream of church related referrals. 

The priest continued his combined parish ministry and counseling work until six years after the 1978 letter to the archbishop from the Pius High School boy when he surrendered his state license to practice psychology for performing oral sex on a male adolescent he was treating. 

No criminal charges were filed.

Licensed by the state

There were other sex offender priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese who were both ordained Catholic ministers and state licensed practitioners or working in state licensed facilities or programs. 

Like Father Nichols, they were known by the archbishop to have a history of sexually assaulting youngsters.

For instance, Father James Arimond was pastor of St. Fredrick Catholic Church when he was arrested for sexual assault of a minor in 1989.  The popular priest was well known among the parish youth.  An avid bicyclist, he had led four youngsters on a 4,450 mile cross-country trip in 1983.

Father Arimond received a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and worked as a consultant in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

The priest was convicted in 1990.  He left the priesthood sometime in the 1990’s but obtained a license from the State of Wisconsin as a counselor. He was working in a Racine County clinic when a Milwaukee Journal story about the priest appeared in April, 2002. The state launched an investigation into his credentials, since such a conviction normally bars an applicant from obtaining a license.

Bishop Banks

Father Donald Buzinowski was a priest from the diocese of Green Bay in 1990 when, in the 1990’s, Bishop Robert Banks permitted his transfer to Milwaukee after a 12 year old boy, accompanied by his mother, told diocesan officials that the priest had sexually abused him on several occasions. 

Bishop Banks had just been appointed the new Green Bay Bishop after serving as Cardinal Law’s chief deputy in Boston.  Under Law, according to a 2003 Massachusetts Grand Jury report, Bishop Banks was directly responsible for the transfer of known priest sex offenders, including the infamous priest pedophile, John Goeagan.  Bishop Banks also enlisted the help of Father John Shannley, another priest at the center of the Boston sexual abuse scandal, to help “mediate” a case in 1987 with a victim seeking help from the archdiocese.

According to the grand jury, Bishop Banks deliberately kept key information from authorities in criminal investigations. 

Just before leaving the Boston Archdiocese, Bishop Banks testified before a Suffox County judge on behalf of a priest convicted of sexually abusing a minor.  Although the priest had a lengthy history of abusing children recorded in archdiocesan files, Bishop Banks allowed the judge to believe it was the priest’s first offense.  The priest received probation.

Priest will sue

Father Buzinowski was ordained in 1968 and served in six Green Bay parishes, as well as churches in Dykesville and Sturgeon Bay. 

The police investigated the 1990 complaint and the Brown County prosecutor believed the boy but “it was going to be the boy’s word against a priest.”  No charges were filed.

Diocesan officials offered counseling to the child and promised the parents that Father Buzinowski would be restricted in his work with children but also warned that if the story became public “the priest will sue.”

Father Buzinowski moved to Milwaukee and took up residence at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Wauwatosa.  No longer practicing as a priest, he began a decade-long career working with youth in the Milwaukee County until he plead guilty in 2002 to possession of child pornography.  While on an Internet chat room, he told an undercover FBI agent he likes having sex with 14 year-olds and attempted to arrange a meeting for sex.   

In 1995, Buzinowski applied for a job as a director of religious education for a Milwaukee Parish.  A call from the parish to the Green Bay diocese led the Milwaukee Archdiocese to send an email warning priests and deacons of Buzinowski’s history.  The archdiocese, however, notified no authorities about the priest’s past.

In August 2002, the Milwaukee Journal obtained a letter written by Buzinowski in which he admits to abusing at least fourteen boys while a priest in Green Bay.

Notorious cases kept quiet

The vast majority of assaults, however, never came to the attention of authorities outside the church.  Typical among these “quiet” cases was Father George Nuedling of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Twin Lakes.

Father Nuedling was one of the archdiocese’s most visible clerics and a legendary fundraiser. When Father Nuedling arrived in June 1968 to pastor St. John’s, he endeared himself quickly to the small, resort town community just north of the Illinois border. 

But during a visit to the parish in June 2002 by Project Benjamin Director Dr. Barbara Reinke, Dr. Reinke acknowledged that Father Nuedling was in fact a “notorious pedophile.”  Father Nuedling’s abuses predated his arrival in Twin Lakes. While associate pastor of St. Rita’s in West Allis he is known to have sexually abused several young boys.

During the Spring of 2002, numerous victims contacted the archdiocese to report abuses by Father Nuedling during the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. 

His total number of victims is difficult to estimate, but at least 50 have made contact with either the archdiocese or victims’ organizations.

Legacy of abuse

Father Nuedling lived alone in the parish rectory and would rape, sodomize and otherwise sexually abuse youngsters there, the sacristy and in his car--even in the church parking lot.  He could also be physically threatening and abusive.

One victim was invited to the rectory by the priest to watch a baseball game.  When he came back from using the bathroom in the priest’s bedroom, Father Nuedling tackled the boy, threw him on the bed, and “began grabbing my crotch.  I could not get him to stop,” recalled the victim in recent testimony.  “He was grabbing me so hard and it hurt and I began yelling.”  The father of the victim was Father Neudling’s friend and golf partner.  “I couldn’t tell anyone,” according to the victim.

Another victim from the parish grade school recalls how the priest would assault several youngsters at once.  “He would hold so-called ‘parties’ for his ‘favorite’ seventh and eighth graders.  He would give us beer and alcohol. He would take some of us, one at a time, to the bathroom.  That’s where he took me the first time and told me to take out my penis.”  The priest performed oral sex on the boy. 

On subsequent occasions, Father Neudling would bring the boy to the rectory and sodomize him.  “He would try to give me money,” according to the victim,  “so I would keep coming back.”

The priest would sometimes grab a boy’s genitals and buttocks in church.

“After mass,” according to one victim, “he would tell my parents he wanted me to come over and help him and he would give me a ride home.  He would sit in a chair, pull his pants down, and start playing with his penis.  He would make me grab it and play with it.  He would undo my pants and stick his finger up my rectum and asked me how it felt.” 

The priest would frequently order the child to perform oral sex.  If the child refused, “He would punish me, hitting me and forcing me to bend over and he would pull down my pants.”  The priest would sodomize the child.  Sometimes the boy would cry.  Father Nuedling, who could be intoxicated, would yell at the child to “shut up.”  “Then I would do what he told me,” recalls the victim.

Another victim testified that Father Nuedling seemed to be aroused by physical violence.  “I was a wild kid…strong…and I would hit him.  He would call me back to the rectory and let me do it.  Later, as an adult, I realized that this was sexually arousing to him.”

Abuse witnessed

One victim testified that he was 14 years old in 1980 when Father Nuedling hired him as the church groundskeeper.  One afternoon the priest asked the boy to step into the sacristy and get him a cup of water.  “Before I knew it he was putting his arm around me and pulling down my pants and stroking my penis.  His other hand moved down my buttocks and he inserted his finger into my rectum.” 

The deacon of the church, Tony Martino, however, walked into the room.  The priest quickly exited.  The deacon told the victim the next day that he had confronted the priest and “it would never happen again.”  Father Nuedling, on next seeing the victim, warned the youngster “not to tell anyone and that no one would believe me.”

A former church member interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says she witnessed Nuedling molest a boy once on church grounds. Another youth, she said, had to pull the priest off the boy.

According to the witness, "When I saw this happen with the one boy, we got out to the street and the boy turned to me and said, 'Don't you ever tell anybody what just happened. They won't believe you anyway.' "

Left alone

In 1986, Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba confronted Father Nuedling with a complaint lodged against him by one of the victims.  According to a chronology provided by the archdiocese, Nuedling admitted the charge was true. The priest and Bishop Sklba agreed that he would have no unsupervised contact with minors.  He was nonetheless left alone and unsupervised in the rectory.

No one in the parish or community was informed of the abuse report and Father Nuedling remained in his pastoral position in Twin Lakes.

In 1993, after another complaint surfaced with the archdiocese, Father Nuedling was asked to enter into retirement.  He continued to conduct ministry in the archdiocese, however, and died of a heart attack while playing golf in 1994. 

Grateful parishioners named the church’s community center after him in his honor and memory. He was buried in the church cemetery in Randall Township.

Many Twin Lakes residents still find it difficult to believe that their beloved pastor of 25 years was a serial child sex offender.  The community center, however, has been renamed.

Archbishop “cavalierly insensitive”

It was an “open secret” that Fr. Dennis Pecore, a priest with the Society of the Divine Savior religious order who was assigned to Milwaukee’s Mother of Good Council parish and grade school, was sexually abusing boys at the parish and the school. 

In July of 1984, a teacher who was alarmed by the priest’s behavior of routinely taking boys to his bedroom wrote to Archbishop Weakland urging action before “it goes public.”  Archbishop Weakland wrote back, “Any libelous material found in your letter will be scrutinized carefully by our lawyers.”

Frustrated, the teacher and two others continued to write the archdiocese, warning of the danger Pecore posed to children.  All three were fired. 

In a lawsuit filed against the archdiocese, the teachers claimed they lost their jobs for trying to warn Archbishop Weakland about the priest.  According to the teachers, Archbishop Weakland never took action and “conspired to silence this situation and terminate” the whistleblowers.

Archbishop Weakland’s behavior towards the teachers drew an unusual rebuke from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in 1988:

Archbishop Weakland, in the letter responding to claims, was cavalierly insensitive to what the record discloses were legitimate and responsible actions on the part of the appellants concerning the sexual misconduct of Father Pecore.

Three years later, in 1987, Father Pecore was arrested and convicted of child sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail.  In November of 1987, the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the religious order and Father Pecore reached a $650,000 settlement with one victim.

Archbishop Weakland insisted that the agreement be kept secret against the “strong objections” of the victim and his family. 

The archdiocese would later claim that such agreements were “requested by the victim” but this appears to have rarely, if ever, been the case. 

According to the victim:  “If the archdiocese wanted to protect me, why did they put me through all the terrible hassles that they did?  I wanted to tell my story to everyone.  I wanted to get this out.  I felt bad for the teachers that lost their jobs and the principal of the school who had to leave. I wanted this out in the open.”

The victim continues to suffer from the consequences of the abuse and remains in treatment to this day.  But as bad as the sexual abuse was, according to the victim in a 2002 CNN interview, the worse injury was caused by the actions of Archbishop Weakland and the archdiocese:  “That’s what really hurts…more than the abuse itself.”

Another arrest

Father Pecore remained a priest after his conviction.  He also continued to sexually abuse children.  The archdiocese was once again warned about his continued pattern of behavior.  A concerned parishioner repeatedly advised Bishop Sklba that Father Pecore was violating the terms of his probation. He also advised Sklba that Pecore had been accused of sexual abuse of children in Phoenix before his transfer to Milwaukee. Sklba wrote the parishioner on December 21, 1989 and indicated that, “I have no evidence” that Pecore has violated the terms of his probation.  The evidence upon which Bishop Sklba relied in concluding that Pecore was not violating the terms of his parole is remarkable:

[T]his matter has been directly discussed with Father Pecore himself who categorically affirmed his compliance with all terms of his parole.
The allegations of the concerned parishioner and others regarding Pecore’s continued conduct had more validity than the affirmation of the already once-convicted pedophile.  Pecore was in fact sexually abusing his eight-year-old nephew at the time.  That abuse continued for three years despite the best efforts of individuals to convince the archdiocese to act.

When the child’s parents learned of the abuse and filed suit, the archdiocese claimed that the child’s mother—the priest’s sister—was at fault because of her alleged knowledge of the priest’s history of abusing children.

The child’s parents agreed to a nominal settlement on his behalf in exchange for the archdiocese withdrawing its claims against the mother.

Father Pecore was sentenced to twelve years in prison for the abuse and was released in 2003.  His nephew now lives alone in Florida, shunned by his family and abandoned by his church.

Victims “not so innocent”

The archbishop, however, did not see the problem of sexually abusive priests in the same way as the court of appeals, Father Pecore’s victims, the victims’ parents, the school principal or teachers.

In a 1988 column for the Catholic Herald, Archbishop Weakland wrote that not all adolescent victims of sexual assault were “so innocent.” 

“Some” wrote the archbishop, “can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite street-wise.”

Praised nationally for his tolerance of dissent on other issues, the archbishop flatly refused repeated requests for meetings with clergy abuse victims, especially victims’ organizations and representatives.  Indeed, he rarely, if ever, talked with victims and their families, passing on that difficult pastoral assignment to legal and lay advisors.

When asked about his refusal to meet with victims in a 1994 Milwaukee Journal interview, Archbishop Weakland replied that he “didn’t find that kind of thing helpful.”

And there was Project Benjamin.

Project Benjamin 

Soon after his 1988 column questioning the innocence of some victims sexually assaulted by clergy, public criticism led Archbishop Weakland to establish the outreach project.

Project Benjamin was touted as “cutting-edge” by the archbishop -- a national model to be used to heal sexual abuse victims of clergy, help offenders and provide education and outreach to parishes. 

The name was chosen, according to program materials, because “the biblical story of Benjamin refers both to a victim of sexual abuse and the perpetrator of abuse.” 

This reflected the archbishop’s desire for the church to direct the response of “everyone involved” in these “incidents,” including the perpetrator, who could be, presumably, a victim himself of the “not so innocent.” 

The Project Benjamin philosophy implied a moral equivalence between victim and perpetrator.   The church, which was aligned to “neither side,” was in the best position to determine what steps needed to be taken “in the interest of all involved.”   The church would investigate the claims by victims, treat the victim and perpetrator alike, and in the unfortunate event the “abuse would be made public,” provide services to the affected parish. 

In the Spring of 2002, after fourteen years in operation and contact with hundreds of victims and dozens of clergy sex offenders, Project Benjamin officials made their first report of child sexual abuse by a priest to law enforcement.

 “We report to authorities,” Bishop Richard Sklba told Sunday parishioners at St. Peter and Paul Parish on Milwaukee’s East Side.  “In fact, we just sent a report to the district attorney.”

The bishop failed to mention that the victim in the case had just informed the archdiocese, after months of delay by the Project Benjamin director, that he had reported the priest to the Milwaukee district attorney already.  

It was then the abusive priest’s file was sent to civil authorities.

Years of Criticism

It is not too surprising, therefore, that like many Church “outreach” programs around the country, Project Benjamin and its officials have received sustained criticism from victims and victim advocates since its inception.

Over a dozen grand jury investigations launched around the country since 2001 to investigate the church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse are finding patterns similar to those in Milwaukee.  

While claiming to aid victims, church run programs, according to these reports, have most often been used as a “front” by lawyers and bishops to “wait out” victims past the criminal and civil statutes.  Outreach programs also appear to have been routinely used to manage and manipulate treatment costs and blunt public criticism of church policies and practices. 

Under public pressure in the Spring of 2002 for transferring known sex offender clergy, Archbishop Weakland created a lay panel to assess the status of clergy in the ministry with a history of committing sexual abuse.  He also asked the panel to review the archdiocesan response to victims. 

The group interviewed no victim, family member or clinician working with victims.  It’s chair, Dr. Anthony Kutchin—who earlier had handled the Gary Kazmarek matter for the church--concluded in the Fall of 2003, contrary to victim testimony, that the response of the archdiocese to victims was “excellent.”   When pressed by reporters as to how he reached his conclusions, the long time archdiocesan consultant conceded that it was based on reading a half a dozen or so church files; no victim or family member was interviewed and no evaluation tool was used.

In the late Fall of 2003 Archbishop Timothy Dolan initiated yet another review of Project Benjamin, this time by the project’s board. 

Testimony by victims and family members at two October 2002 listening sessions, and before Madison lawmakers in September of 2003, revealed repeated complaints against Project Benjamin, its two directors and Bishop Richard Sklba, who supervised the operation of the program.

Particularly exasperating, according to witnesses, are public guarantees by the archdiocese to cover mental health treatment which are then followed by clinical interference from Project Benjamin staff.  Treatment on numerous occasions was terminated by the archdiocese against the strong warning of victims’ clinicians and doctors.

Also common was the routine breach of client confidentiality. Information disclosed by victims regularly found its way to archdiocesan lawyers and officials.

Pastoral vs. legal priorities

Part of the dilemma for the church undoubtedly derives from it’s legal actions which pit pastoral care against corporate liability and public exposure. 

Illuminating in this regard are the recent remarks to the New York Times by David Scarmardo, chief legal counsel for the diocese of Houston until last year.

In a lengthy interview, Mr. Scarmado told the Times he was instructed by the Houston bishop to vigorously resist accusers, fend off lawsuits and work with church officials to send victims away quietly, with as little compensation as possible.

Mr. Scarmardo, a former seminarian, is himself a victim of sexual abuse by a priest. He left his post with the Houston diocese this year after struggling with what he calls the “utter impossibility” of continuing to abet the legal strategy of the church.

Most victims' cases in Houston, according to Mr. Scarmardo, were beyond the statute of limitations.  Little was offered to settle cases. Often it was just the cost of a short course of therapy.  If that failed, he said, church lawyers would petition to have cases dismissed on first amendment grounds, arguing that the government must not interfere in church affairs.

The settlement agreements always contained confidentiality clauses. Like other diocesan lawyers, Mr. Scarmardo often included penalty clauses in the event a victim breached the confidentiality stipulation.

According to Mr. Scarmardo:

The standard approach was to offer to pay only for the victim’s counseling, and even this came with strings attached. The diocese kept a list of preferred therapists and limited the number of sessions it would pay for. A year of counseling was considered generous.

Mr. Scarmardo told the Times he found this practice wrong. It had taken him three years of counseling before he began to even talk about his own sexual abuse.

Pastoral tone, policy sham

A blistering February, 2003 grand jury report from Long Island draws similar conclusions. 

The report documents the rape and other sexual abuse of children and youngsters from the diocese of Rockville Centre in churches, rectories, on camping trips and in homes.  It details how the diocese received allegations of child sexual abuse and did not report them to police and documents the routine practice of transferring accused priests to other parishes.

As for the diocesan response to victims, the grand jury concluded that:

The response of priests in the diocesan hierarchy to allegations of criminal sexual abuse was not pastoral.  In fact, although there was a written policy that set a pastoral tone, it was a sham.  The diocese failed to follow the policy from its inception, even at the most rudimentary level.

The diocese had adopted a “carefully orchestrated plan” by its “victim’s intervention team” to “appear to be providing pastoral care but, in reality, acting as legal counsel for the diocese.”

One memo, written by the clerical official in charge of supervising outreach to victims, bragged that the “method of getting to victims fast and finding out all the details and facts,” was meeting with great success in helping the church’s lawyers mount a swift legal defense.  Indeed, the memo goes on to say, the Rockville “method” was being used in at least 200 other clergy abuse cases around the country.

The same official once told a nun seeing a victim that she was wasting her time working with the young man because “the statute of limitations in the case had expired.”  According to the report, the nun’s response was, “You bastard, these people are hurting.  Why do you care about the statute of limitations?  That’s not why we are here.”

A 1996 diocesan memo praised the results of the “Rockville method”:

The diocese has the lowest ratio of losses to assets of any diocese and the lowest ratio of losses to number of priests working in any diocese in the country.  Our system is in place and working well.

The Long Island grand jury concluded that, for the Diocese of Rockville, “What it came down to was a simple accounting issue, nothing more or less.”  “The diocese,” it concluded, “could not and should not be trusted to protect children from predatory priests.”  In a highly unusual move, the grand jury called for the elimination of the criminal and civil statutes on child sexual abuse as the “only real means” of assuring public safety in the state of New York.

Outsourcing victim’s services urged early

Many of the professionals Archbishop Weakland called upon for advice in helping victims in 1989 warned him of similar dangers in having the church run its own clerical abuse outreach program.

Dr. Rita McDonald, a Marquette University Professor Emeritus in psychology, was on the committee appointed to set up Project Benjamin. She quit after the first few meetings. 

“I felt,” said Dr. McDonald in a recent interview, “that it should not be inside the archdiocese.  That’s just too difficult for many victims.  Some can’t even walk into church and that is what Project Benjamin is asking them to do.” 

 “How can you say it is a model if you can’t show that people benefited from the program?” said Dr. McDonald, pointing out that no independent survey has ever assessed outcomes.

One controversial aspect of the program, which appears to have only been recently discontinued, was pressuring victims to meet with offenders with church officials present.  Forgiveness was urged.  Testimony in Milwaukee and Madison revealed that victims throughout the 1990’s were told that this practice was the “first order of business” if they “wanted to be helped.”

Adversarial, if need be

Not uncommon was the experience of one victim of Milwaukee priest Dan Buzinski.  According to the archdiocese, Father Buzinski had a history of reports of child sexual abuse and was placed into retirement in the 1990’s. 

Father Buzinksi was assigned to St. Bernadette’s Parish in Milwaukee when he began assaulting an eight-year-old from the parish school. In December of 1994, the victim, now an adult, called Project Benjamin to report the abuse and get help.  The project director, Liz Piasecki, told her that the matter would be investigated “but if you become adversarial with the church, the church will become adversarial with you.” 

The victim never made the report.

Another victim testified how the Project Benjamin director informed her in 1998:  “I hope you know you can’t sue us—you will not get money.”  

Another victim told how she sat with a gun in her hand while calling Project Benjamin in 2001 and was close to using it after being “repeatedly told” she had to “understand that we help everyone, the priest as well as yourself.”  “What should we do with him [the priest] if it was one incident?” the victim was asked.

Victims repeatedly testified to failed efforts to get the archbishop and his auxiliary to return calls and letters. 

Parents of a Lake Geneva victim told the New York Times how Bishop Sklba, the Project Benjamin supervisor, promised to contact their son on numerous occasions and never did.  “Why did you never call?” pleaded the mother in public testimony before the bishop. “I probably should have.  I suppose…I am sure I should have,” replied the bishop. 

“Cold and business-like”

Another common frustration is the “cold” and “business-like” approach of church officials.  The Project Benjamin director told one wife of a victim:  “You’re not the victim, we can’t help you.”  The couple’s entire savings had disappeared to pay for medication and treatment. 

Therapy provision, according to victims, is routinely threatened after the first few months of treatment. 

“He should be healed by now,” the Benjamin director informed a psychologist after treatment passed the six-month mark. 

The psychologist informed the director that his client had, after all, been raped and sodomized repeatedly by the priest as a child, was in the early stages of treatment and was recently suicidal. 

Other treatment providers were pressed by Project Benjamin to use their clinical influence to get clients, against their desire, to enter a new “pastoral mediation” effort of the archdiocese and not pursue legal channels.   

At least one recent complaint has been filed with the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing for violating client confidentiality; but it’s unclear if action can be taken because Project Benjamin, although staffed by a licensed psychologist, is sponsored and operated within a religious organization.

Celebrated priest

Support for clergy sex offenders by the archdiocese, on the other hand, has been generous.

When Father Eldred Lesniewski died in 1997, he was mourned by thousands of Catholics from his native Milwaukee south side.  The celebrated priest had operated a local orphanage and was a long time senior official of Milwaukee Catholic Charities.

Father Lesniewski was also a child sex offender.

Victims from St. Amelia’s orphanage recall how the priest would sexually assault them in the facility.  One youngster was six when he was placed in the orphanage.  He was soon a favorite of the priest who taught the boy how to be an altar server. 

One day, having recently turned ten, the child confessed to the priest that an older boy had entered his cubicle a few evenings previous and sexually assaulted him.

The priest invited the boy to his bedroom to “teach me about sex.”  Father Lesniewski pushed the child on the bed and began to taking off the boy’s pants.  “As he was doing this,” according to the victim, “he was talking to me about what happens when you become a man and what to expect and how your pubic hair grows.  He showed me his erection and then he masturbated me and himself.”

The sexual abuse continued for several years, according to the victim, “Anytime he could get me alone.”

“Whatever support you need”

Another victim of Father Lesniewski filed a civil complaint against the Milwaukee Archdiocese in June of 1992. 

According to archdiocesan records, the priest was told he could no longer conduct parish masses but he continued to do so. In a June 16, 1993 letter from the vicar of clergy personnel, the priest was asked to stop saying mass, although it was  “appropriate to help out at the convent or nursing home.” 

“Our policy is not to judge whether the allegations are true or false, but to be sensitive to all parties,” wrote the vicar. The archbishop understood that these are difficult times for the priest and he “does not want to add to the situation.”

In March of that year Bishop Sklba had written the priest that the archdiocese was eager to offer whatever support he required, especially legal advice.  Father Eldred may have gotten the “mistaken impression” that because the “archdiocese and the parish retained separate lawyers” the archdiocese was not “supportive of his needs.”

The archdiocese and the priest, Bishop Sklba explained, “must appear to have no conflict of interest.” 

Two years later the archdiocese, in arguing for first amendment protection before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the Prizloff case, would insist that priests were “independent contractors.”  

Father Lesniewski had recently hired Milwaukee attorney Gerald Boyle to represent him.  That, according to Bishop Sklba’s letter, was fortuitous.  Mr. Boyle had recently offered to the archbishop a “special set fee” to represent any priest from the archdiocese. 

In the agreement with attorney Boyle, the archdiocese would be billed directly for the priest and the priest would then reimburse the archdiocese when able.  The agreement would cover Mr. Boyle’s retainer, pleadings, initial settlement discussions, discovery and, if necessary, trial costs.

“If there are special circumstances, please let me know so that we can make arrangements that best suit your needs,” wrote the bishop.

In 1996 letter from Archbishop Weakland, Father Lesniewski is asked, “with great pleasure,” to become Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Juneau. 

“It is a privilege,” wrote the archbishop, “to share my ministry with you.”

Father Lesniewski’s portrait hangs today in the corridors of the Catholic Charities headquarter in Milwaukee honoring the priest.  

Some cases not so quiet

Unlike the “quiet” cases, like Father Nuedling’s or Father Lesniewski’s, some archdiocesan serial sex offenders would gain local and even national notoriety. 

One such individual was Father William Effinger.

Father Effinger’s civil cases would become the only ones in which the archbishop and archdiocesan officials would be legally required to answer questions concerning their actions with abusive priests.

According to court records, officials from the archdiocese were repeatedly aware of “believable allegations” against Father Effinger well after Project Benjamin was put in place in 1989.

The lawyer representing many of these victims said in a 1993 interview that he believed that the priest may have “abused as many as 150 children.”

According to cases filed that year, victims came into contact with Father Effinger while he was assigned to parishes in Sheboygan, West Allis, Kenosha and Lake Geneva. 

The priest would expose himself to children, fondle their breasts and genitals, and lie on top of them.  Some victims were 9, 10 and 11 years old.  The abuse occurred in elementary schools, inside churches, rectories, church basements, garages and parked cars. 

Father Effinger would often abuse children when he would go to their rooms to say good night while on pastoral visits with families. 

One victim worked as an assistant janitor in Father Effinger’s Sheboygan parish.  He reported that Father Effinger would watch boys through a glass block wall that separated the shower room from the church garage.  While doing so, the priest would masturbate.

One young victim reported the abuse to a parish nun.  Chastised for lying, the victim was sent to Father Effinger for confession.

Public complaints necessary

If there had been no public complaints against Father Effinger, according to court documents, no one from these parishes would have learned the true reason for his transfers. 

Father Effinger was convicted of child sexual assault in 1993 and died in prison in 1996 while serving a 10-year sentence. 

Although he never appears to have spent pastoral time with the priest offender’s victims, Archbishop Weakland told a reporter that to offer consolation and assistance, he continued to correspond and visit with Father Effinger up until the time of his death.

According to depositions, every church official that had knowledge of Father Effinger’s criminal conduct, including Archbishop Weakland and Bishop Sklba, believed the complaints against him. 

It is interesting to note that the archbishop never considered Father Effinger a laudable priest in other regards.  Archbishop Weakland testified that Father Effinger’s seminary record was so poor that he hoped candidates like Father Effinger would “not be ordained today.”

Interested in working with youth

Father Effinger was first assigned to St. Mary’s in Kenosha in the early 1960’s where he was chaplain of the Boy Scouts and director of the county’s Catholic Youth Orgnization.  In a letter to the priest personnel board, he wrote that his main interest was “working with youth.”

The earliest abuse noted in the 1993 civil cases involved assaults that took place at St. Mary’s. Other assaults took place in Father Effinger’s next assignment in Lake Geneva. 

A Lake Geneva couple wrote Archbishop Weakland that their son had been abused on Easter Sunday.  The boy, Joseph Cerniglia, now 37 years old, was 13 when Father Effinger invited him to stay overnight at the Lake Geneva rectory so “he wouldn’t have to get up so early to serve Easter Mass.”  Father Effinger gave Cerniglia a beer and told him they would have to share the only bed in the rectory.  “The next thing I know, he had his hands in my pants and was violently molesting me.”

The next day, after Easter Mass, Mrs. Cerniglia could tell something was wrong with her son.  The parents first confronted Father Effinger, then contacted Archbishop Weakland.

Archbishop Weakland told the Cerniglias, “It would be best if we kept this quiet for the kid’s sake,” and promised that he would never put Father Effinger in a position to harm children again.

Archbishop Weakland sent Father Effinger to a Milwaukee psychotherapist, Leo Graham, for counseling. 

Notification “not useful”

Before receiving Graham’s report, however, Archbishop Weakland reassigned Father Effinger as associate pastor of Holy Name Parish in Sheboygan where he would have daily contact with children at the church’s grade school.  The archbishop did not inform the pastor, the parishioners, or the police of Father Effinger’s criminal behavior.

“Would it be fair to say that information was deliberately kept from Holy Name Parish?” Archbishop Weakland was asked in deposition.

“I deliberately kept it, yes.  I didn’t think it should be divulged at the time or was useful,” Weakland responded.

Graham’s report concluded that he believed Father Effinger was “not a pedophile,” although he was concerned about his alcohol use.  “Someone of significant ecclesiastical stature ought to chew him out royally,” wrote Graham. “I might suggest that he be told that a year of service as an associate under some nominal supervision might be necessary.”

It is unclear how many priests were sent to Dr. Graham for assessment during this time. Weakland’s testimony seems to indicate that the archbishop, who began to consider him something of a friend, frequently consulted Graham. 

Graham surrendered his license to practice in Wisconsin in 1987 for having inappropriate sexual contact with patients.

Father Effinger testified that no one monitored or supervised his contact with children at Holy Name, nor was he “chewed out royally.” 

Fr. James Hess, a priest who was assigned with Father Effinger from 1981 to 1987 at Holy Name, testified that he would not have accepted Father Effinger’s assignment “if I had known of past complaints because I would have presumed the behavior would recur.”

Archbishop Weakland finally removed the priest from parish ministry in 1992 when a man molested by Father Effinger as a teenager confronted Father Effinger, recorded the conversation and took the tape to the archdiocese and a local television station.

Project Benjamin officials knew at least two weeks in advance that Father Effinger was going to be removed from his parish and were discharged to Sheboygan by Archbishop Weakland to work with the priest and the parish. 

Father Effinger remained unsupervised and with access to children during that time and until the local ABC affiliate reported the story.

Public assurances of reporting

Later that year, on the fifteenth anniversary of his installation as archbishop, Rembert Weakland, at the request of the editor of the Milwaukee Journal, published a front-page Sunday essay on the sexual abuse problem in the church. 

The request for Archbishop Weakland to explain his actions, unedited and in his own words, as the corporate head of an organization being implicated in the transfer of criminal sex offenders, was an unprecedented opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands of readers across Wisconsin.

The archbishop was asked to title the piece. 

He chose “The Education of an Archbishop, Continues,” mirroring the title of a recent two-part feature biography about his career published in the New Yorker Magazine earlier that year and reprinted in installments in the Sunday Milwaukee Journal.

The New Yorker piece, which was later published in book form, hailed Archbishop Weakland as the intellectual and spiritual vanguard of America’s liberal Catholics who, according to the author, were growing increasingly disillusioned by the deepening conservatism of John Paul II and were turning to Archbishop Weakland for hope and inspiration.

In the Milwaukee Journal article the archbishop, referring to the national and local scandal that was unfolding, wrote that “talking and writing about sexual abuse of children and adolescents has become almost a preoccupation in our society.” 

Expressing his “deep” sympathy for victims Archbishop Weakland insisted that, “The collar…should not protect priests from the consequences of criminal acts.  I would like to make clear that all such crimes are reported to the police as the law requires.”

Not required by law

The laws in Wisconsin, however, did not (and still do not) require clergy to report sexual abuse.

Church records show that the archbishop was not reporting criminal sexual acts against children being committed by priests and religious under his direct supervision; his failure to do so was “within the requirements” of the law.

The 1992 Project Benjamin Handbook, for instance, is quite clear in its instructions to licensed teachers and other state professionals working in the archdiocese that they are required to report suspected abuse.

The burden of reporting sexual abuse, explain the authors, must shift from the victim to the professional.  Case examples and illustrations are amply provided.

Clergy, however, fell under a different rubric.

In the opening leaf of the handbook under the title, “When to Contact Project Benjamin,” is typed, boldface:

When the abuse involves church leaders or clergy: If dealing with anyone who may be involved in a sexual abuse situation involving either a member of the clergy or another in a Church leadership role, contact Bishop Richard Sklba, Co-Vicar for Clergy Personnel, immediately.

Find a counselor

For example, neither the archbishop nor any archdiocesan officials ever reported Father Peter Burns.

Father Burns was another Sheboygan priest who was molesting children.

Father Burns had admitted to his superiors in 1987 that he had sexual contact with a 14-year-old boy that year. 

Court records show that, although Father Burns had made this admission, he continued to have boys sleep over at the Sheboygan rectory of St. Peter Claver Parish until his arrest.  The pastor, Fr. David Braun, testified that Father Burns would have boys sleep over at least once a week.

Father Burns was also heavily involved in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, which he continued after his admission of abuse to archdiocesan officials.  He also continued teaching duties at the parish school and a local public school.

Then a mother of a 14-year-old boy complained to the pastor that Father Burns had abused her child as well. Father Braun confronted Father Burns, who admitted he had indecently touched the child.  The police were contacted but the boy and his parents, apparently, did not want to press charges. 

The youngster committed suicide in 1992.

Bishop Sklba was informed of Father Burns’ criminal conduct and, instead of reporting to authorities, told Father Burns to find a counselor.  Father Burns testified he saw a therapist once a week for a short while and then monthly.

Bishop Sklba was again alerted that Father Burns was sexually assaulting children when another mother complained that the priest was abusing her 12-year-old son, who was a participant in the Big Brothers program.   Bishop Sklba told the pastor to offer therapy to the mother and child.

Father Braun never asked that Father Burns be removed from his assignment:  “I felt that all persons were in counseling.  I felt at peace with the situation.”

Father Braun and Father Burns testified they both agreed that Father Burns should no longer have boys staying overnight at the rectory.  But Father Burns continued the practice.  Since 1986, according to Father Burns himself, “at least 13 boys spent the night” with him, although, according to Father Braun’s reckoning, the number was much higher.

Surreal turn of events

A surreal turn of events eventually brought Father Burns to justice.

In 1992, the public knew Father Burns in his role as spokesperson for the family of Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old Laotian boy who was sexually assaulted and murdered by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. 

Drugged and disoriented, Sinthasomphone had escaped from the killer’s apartment, only to be returned to Dahmer by two Milwaukee police officers who were called to the scene by concerned neighbors who saw the boy, without clothes, staggering down the alley. 

The officers, who were later removed from the department, claimed that they believed the youngster was involved in a “gay spat’ with Dahmer.  Dahmer’s defense attorney, Gerald Boyle, later hired the dismissed police officers as private investigators in his defense work for the accused Capuchin priests and brothers from St. Lawrence seminary in Mt. Calvary.

Although Father Burns had admitted to abusing adolescent boys, the archdiocese did not stop him from performing his public role for the slain child or from delivering a eulogy at a community service held at the Cathedral of St. John’s.  The service, which brought local and national media attention, saw segments of Father Burns homily aired across the state. 

Two victims saw the priest on television. Two weeks later Father Burns was arrested.

Up until the day of his arrest, no restrictions were ever placed on Father Burns and no one in the parish was informed of his criminal activity.

In 2003, Father Burns received a ten-year sentence for breaking the terms of his probation from his 1992 conviction.

Seeming paradox

    In the 1992 article, Archbishop Weakland assured the public that the archdiocese understood the incurable nature of pedophilia:

Pedophilia in any form is an illness…I do not see it as curable.  Thus, a whole set of safeguards will always have to be in place.

Nor, do I think one can be placed in a position where the Roman collar could become an instrument to assist those with such an illness to act out.

In spite of his public pronouncements, Archbishop Weakland never reported a single priest to authorities for sexual misconduct or removed men like Father Effinger and Father Burns from public ministry.

No priest under his authority, according to public statements spanning the archbishop’s entire career, was, in his mind, a true pedophile.

One possible explanation for these paradoxical statements emanates from Archbishop Weakland’s controversial embrace of a treatment philosophy marketed to the bishops in the 1980’s by a small cadre of sexual abuse therapists, most of them ordained priests.  These individuals have vigorously resisted the involvement of law enforcement in handling abusive priests. 

Maryland authorities have cited at least two of its principal adherents for failing to report child sexual assaults.

One, Father Stephen Rosetti, who runs the St. Luke’s Institute outside of Washington, D.C., was cited in 2002 for not reporting even one act of sexual abuse, although his program had “treated” over 1,000 clerical offenders.  The priests defended his institute by claiming that the offenders he was treating were residents of states other than Maryland and were therefore not covered by the reporting law.

Father Rossetti, the chief consultant to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of its ad-hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, is a fierce adherent of the idea that most abusive priests, with counseling, can and should be returned to ministry.  

Praised in letter

Father Rosetti is praised in the first paragraph of Archbishop Weakland’s March 2001 confidential letter to priests concerning the sexual abuse problem.  The Archbishop  laments, “The voice of those therapists who work with offenders is not being heard from.”  Weakland attached to the correspondence an article by Father Rosetti describing the differences between “pedophiles,” or men attracted to pre-pubescent children, and “ephebophiles,” those fixated on youngsters ages 13 to 17. 

It became apparent that the archbishop believed, right up until the eve of his resignation, that many of the sexually abusive priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese were, in fact, “ephebophiles,” not pedophiles.

Criminal law in Wisconsin, of course, does not recognize such distinctions and considers sexual contact with either an 11-year-old or a 14 year both to be felonies.  

Endangering public safety

Archbishop Weakland’s beliefs and policies concerning sex offender clergy had for years received strong repudiation from mental health experts in Wisconsin, but with no effect.

In December 1992, psychologists working with state sex offenders in Division IV of the Wisconsin Psychological Association formed a committee on the matter and issued a public statement.  They voiced alarm that public safety was in jeopardy if others followed Weakland’s ideas and policies.

Weakland’s action with Father Effinger and others, they said, “was not consistent with what the research literature was reporting.”  Contrary to the advice that Weakland claimed he was receiving, since the early 1970’s -- according to the statement -- psychologists have been saying that child sex abusers should not be returned to situations where they could molest children again.  

According to Leonard R. Narus, president of Division IV, “Recommending that a sex offender be returned to an environment in which he held a position of influence over potential victims would be clearly inappropriate and would unnecessarily jeopardize the public safety.”  Narus warned the archbishop that offenders can “look well and integrated” in sessions with therapists and others, “particularly ones who may not be experienced with subtle manipulation.”

When asked by a reporter, Archbishop Weakland declined to name the professionals who were giving him advice and said that he “didn’t intend on carrying on a debate in the press.”

Under sealed deposition the next year, the archbishop did reveal the name of his chief psychological advisor in Wisconsin, Dr. Graham.

“Treats us like Gold”

Father David Hanser sexually molested boys, according to law enforcement officials, for at least three decades. 

Father Hanser was assigned to parishes and ministries throughout the archdiocese and was one of the many clergy that fell under the archbishop’s controversial policy, which was at complete variance with the opinion of the state’s leading mental health authorities on sex offenders. 

Three brothers who the priest sexually abused came forward to the archdiocese in 1988 when Father Hanser was working at Catholic Memorial High School and St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Brookfield.

One boy was 11 in 1983 when Father Hanser began molesting him.  The assaults continued until the victim was 16.  The abuse mostly took place at a cottage the priest owned outside of Merton. 

“He’d invite my two older brothers and myself and then he would molest me in one room while my brothers were sleeping in another,” according to the victim.

When the boy began to complain to his parents that he no longer wanted to accompany the priest to the cottage, the parents insisted:  “Father Hanser has done so much for this family.  He’s invited us out to the cottage, and he taught you how to water-ski.  He takes us out there and he treats us like gold.” 

Finally, the victim could no longer keep the abuse secret.  To his astonishment, he discovered that the priest had molested two of his brothers as well.  

According to a sister of the victims, Father Hanser “just wormed his way into our lives.  He married my eldest brother, Mike, and he was molesting John.  John was the altar boy at their wedding.”

The priest began molesting another of her brothers when he was 12.  He had a history of trouble at school and his parents were thrilled when Father Hanser took an interest in the boy.  She recalls how her brother came running down the priest’s driveway at the cottage “crying and crying.”  “I remember him running and running and my dad just kept driving because my dad felt [my brother] was being disobedient.  I remember my dad saying, ‘He has to stay, he has to help him.’  My parents felt they owed Father Hanser.”

Bishop Sklba met with the family.  He assured them the priest would be removed from ministry which would give him any access to minors.  The family was concerned other children would be abused.  The bishop promised the family that Father Hanser would not be allowed near children again.  He would be placed under strict supervision and monitoring.

A year later, the victim’s sister, a nurse at St Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, discovered the priest enrolled at the hospital’s training program for chaplains to work with patients and families.  She alerted the director of pastoral care and called Bishop Sklba.  The bishop never returned the calls.  The priest was then assigned to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Milwaukee. 

The president of St. Joseph’s told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that no one from the archdiocese informed him of the priest’s sexual abuse history. Even though the priest would visit children, the director of the pediatric unit was not informed of the priest’s criminal history.

When Father Hanser was removed from ministry in 2002, he was serving on the hospital’s ethics committee. He continues to live alone on his exclusive property and estate overlooking scenic Moose Lake in Waukesha County.

The mother of three more sons abused by Father Hanser met with the priest in April of 2002.  “He showed no remorse,” she commented. “He said if he offended us, he was sorry.”  The priest said he had been “immature” at the time he was sexually assaulting her children.  After the meeting the priest wrote the family.  In the past, he had been “selfish.”   “I ask for your forgiveness in a spirit of confidentiality,” wrote the priest.

“Had the archdiocese…searched more aggressively for other victims” when they received reports, according to the Wakesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher, Father Hanser would have been prosecuted.

Instead, according to Bucher, the archdiocese transferred the priest without alerting authorities or parishioners

Mind unchanged

The archbishop never appears to have modified his core beliefs concerning priest sex offenders and what to do about them. 

He struggled to explain why to Mike Goushet of WTMJ TV Milwaukee during a popular Sunday evening public affairs program in March of 2002.  

The public and the media, argued the archbishop, lack “sophistication in these matters.” He drew his favored distinction between sexual contact with a pre-pubescent and post-pubescent youngsters.  The first is incurable.  As for the second, “Say with a 14 year old…is it (the contact) one instance?  Is it a group of instances?  Everything has to be looked at,” according to Weakland.

The archbishop did not explain how one could be certain of the number of “contacts” an abusive priest might have had with a “post-pubescent” youngster.  Nor did he explain how a priest could discern exactly when pubescence had set in or why, if it had, these contacts were any the less harmful or criminal.

Should the criminal code be amended and these “contacts” legalized?  The archbishop was not asked. 

The interviewer changed the subject to the archbishop’s noticeable relief. 

“When the squealing starts”

In his 1994 interview with the Milwaukee Journal, the archbishop was more effusive and less restrained in his speculations. 

An ephebophile’s sexual interest in an individual, explained the archbishop, “usually begins at puberty—say 12 or 13…What happens so often in those cases is that they go on for a few years and then the boy gets a little older and the perpetrator loses interest.  Then is when the squealing starts and you have to deal it.”

As a bishop, of course, “One wishes you could have identified it a little earlier,” but,

It’s very hard sometimes to distinguish a real ephebophile from someone who is sexually attracted to adults but picks up a younger person in a single case.  And that happens quite often, it happens especially in terms of people who are picking up prostitutes; they don’t realize that the person is as young as they are.

“Affairs” with youngsters

There is a difference, the archbishop insists, between a “real” sex offender and “somebody who has picked up and had an affair with a younger person.”

How does the archbishop know this? 

“My doctors agree.”

“Another story,” the archbishop goes on to suggest, “is the large number of gays applying for the seminaries.”

“Should we take them into the seminary?”

“Perhaps,” the archbishop speculates, “there is a connection between ephobophilia and homosexuality?”

Is there a connection between being gay and ephobophilia?  If you wanted a blunt answer, I would say I think there can be a connection between [homosexual orientation] for a priest and an occasional relationship with a younger person.  I think that can happen.  Then you would have to make a distinction.  In other words, I’m saying somebody who might be gay but whose normal orientation is toward adults might pick up the younger person.  I think that can happen.

Never dealt with a “real pedophile”

In his interview with the Milwaukee Journal, the archbishop insisted that clergy who abuse children in the Milwaukee Archdiocese are not “real” pedophiles and therefore not dangerous.  Other professions may be dealing with true pedophiles—Boy Scout leaders, teachers, and coaches—but not the Catholic priesthood. “In fact,” insisted the archbishop, “I have never dealt with a real pedophile.  Really, I haven’t.”

The archbishop was dealing, however, with “real” pedophiles and he knew it.

Will commit “sexual acts against small children again”

One such indisputable pedophile the archbishop knew about was Fond du Lac county priest and Capuchin friar Father Jude Hahn.  Hahn was under the supervision of his religious order superior, Father Kenneth Reinhart, and the Milwaukee Archbishop, his canon law ordinary.

Father Hahn was a diagnosed pedophile in 1992 and in 1993 was refusing treatment.  According to confidential church records, the priest was telling both treatment and church officials that he intended to sexually assault “small children” again.  Nonetheless, in April of 1993 Archbishop Weakland gave express permission for the priest to live unreported and unsupervised in Milwaukee because, according to the archbishop, “he is not well known in this area.”

Reinhart had ordered Father Hahn into treatment in August 1992 at St. Michael’s Hospital outside of St. Louis.  The hospital contained a locked unit for sex offender clergy in which Father Hahn was placed.

Father Hahn broke off treatment and told doctors and Father Reinhart, on separate occasions, that he would “not promise he would not commit sexual acts against small children again.”  That warning did not prevent the Milwaukee archbishop from welcoming the pedophile to his city because he was “not well known in this area.”

Venerable tradition

Father Hahn joined the Capuchins in 1950 and spent his entire professional career as a priest in various staff and administrative positions at St. Lawrence Seminary High School, located in the village of Mount Calvary, just east of Fond du Lac.

The seminary is a boarding school for minors founded in 1859 by Swiss priests seeking to establish the Capuchin Order in the United States.  During its almost 150 years, the seminary has graduated thousands of students. Many joined the ranks of clergy across the United States. Father Hahn, who worked in the development office for a time at the seminary, mentions in a 1994 court deposition that the office fundraising registry, which included many alumni, consisted of over 250,000 names.

During their zenith in the 1950’s, hundreds of youngsters filled the five minor seminaries located within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee alone.  These boys were recruited into a centuries long tradition in Catholicism where devout Catholic parents would place their male children in the complete care of priests and religious inside boarding schools to begin the long training to ordination or vowed religious life.

At any given time in its history, 30 to 50 Capuchins lived with the boys at the seminary.  An impressive new church and friary were built to accommodate the large number of priests and brothers in the early 1970’s.

During most of Father Hahn’s 40 year tenure at St Lawrence, the student body consisted of between 200 to 300 boys, with the freshman class often numbering over a hundred 13 and 14 year olds, principally recruited from the Midwest.

The school, designated on its promotional and fundraising materials as “The Hill of Happiness” and “The Poor Boys’ Seminary,” sits atop an impressive sloping hillside created by the retreat of glaciers from central Wisconsin.  The campus, including the original main tower built during the last century, is a state landmark that can be surveyed for miles.

Red letter day

Along with his duties at the seminary, Father Hahn was also the associate pastor of Holy Name Parish in Mt. Calvary, one of several archdiocesan parishes operated by the Capuchins.  He was the youth director for Holy Name and several other parishes in the area, including churches in nearby St. Cloud and Johnesburg. 

Court records show that Father Hahn assaulted youth from these parishes as well as students at the seminary.

One youngster, whose family lived on a farm close to Mt. Calvary, testified it was a red-letter day in 1969 when his mother informed him that Father Hahn wanted him to do odd jobs around the rectory. The child was 11 years old.  The youngster’s parents and relatives were avid personal and financial supporters of the Capuchins.  Their oldest son was already attending the seminary. 

Father Hahn instructed the boy to come to the rectory after chores.  “He told me I would get not only my pay but that I had been picked for special catechism lessons.  “When you complete the lessons,’ he said, ‘you will receive a St. Jude medal…your mother will be very proud of you.’”   Some of the older boys at the grade school wore the medal and the boy was eager to join their ranks.

Father Hahn’s religious instruction to the 11 year old, according to testimony, consisted of “dozens” of episodes of sexual molestation occurring over a three-year period. 

Typically the priest would call the victim’s home and arrange to meet the child when the Capuchin would be alone in the church rectory. 

In a private den in the rectory’s basement, equipped with a bed, Father Hahn would order the child to take off his clothes.  He would then instruct the boy to lie down on the bed, face to the wall.  “He would usually rub some kind of oil or gel on me and masturbate,” according to the victim.

When the assaults were finished, the child would run home and hide in the barn.  “I would take my clothes off and rub hay all over my body until my skin was raw, over and over, trying to get the oil and his smell off of me.”

Trips out West

Father Hahn also arranged for vacation and camping trips with boys to visit relatives in Washington State or Capuchin institutions located in Montana.  Parents would usually consent, glad that their youngsters could spend such formative time with the revered and popular priest.

One victim recalls, “I would stay awake all night with Father sleeping naked next to me.  I was terrified, I couldn’t move; I didn’t know what to do.  I would pray to God all night begging for the sun to come up so I could dress and run away to the boys in the other tents.”

Court documents show that the Capuchins were aware of Father Hahn’s travel with boys and that sexual abuse was likely to take place during the trips.

A handwritten note by the Capuchin provincial summarizes incidents of sexual abuse by Hahn during two such trips, one assault having been reported to the Capuchins by the victim’s father.

Court documents show that the Capuchins were worried about faculty trips with students from the seminary as well. 

According to the testimony of one former teacher, the seminary’s Capuchin dean of discipline assembled the student body one day and “laid out complex rules about what has to be done to be able to travel with a Capuchin.” The dean ended his instruction by saying that the new rules would assure that “the fat and ugly kids get taken to town, too.”

No insinuations

Trips by faculty were becoming enough of a problem by the beginning of the 1990 school year that Father Reinhart had to tell Mount Calvary friars that such trips would no longer be allowed. 

In a personal letter to Father Hahn, his provincial tried to explain to the priest why these rules would have to be enforced, even for veteran Capuchin staff.

Why, then, had Father Reinhart--just prior to the letter--allowed a trip to Montana with Father Hahn and two area youth? 

“I agreed to the travel, primarily because everything had been arranged and one of the young men was a relative and there was consent from the parents.  However, I would ask that in the future such travel not be engaged in.” 

In case Father Hahn felt the provincial was singling him out, his superior assured him this was hardly the case.  “I have indicated to other friars that I did not want them traveling alone with one or two other young people.”

“I am not making insinuations about you,” wrote Father Reinhart.  “I am simply giving you clear recognition of what is going on in our culture today and the dangers to us and the Church and the province.” 

Sexual assaults at the minor seminary

Capuchin authorities had been aware since at least 1981 that Father Hahn was committing sexual assaults against youngsters at the seminary.

During the 1981-82 school year, one of only two lay teachers at the seminary, Timothy Scott, reported to school administrators that members of the freshman class were telling him that Father Hahn was sexually molesting them.  Father Hahn was the priest in charge of the Freshman class dorm.  He had an office with a private bedroom between the students’ barracks. 

Most Capuchins lived together in the friary located at the top of the hill.  But the sprawling campus and its dozen or so buildings also had offices with private bedrooms, such as those for the Capuchin dorm supervisors, the Capuchin in charge of the hospital ward, and the Capuchin athletic director.

Court records, testimony and provincial documents show that sexual abuse was taking place in these isolated offices and bedrooms and Capuchin authorities knew about it.

According to the student reports to Scott, Father Hahn was ordering youngsters to take off their clothes, spanking them, and then becoming sexually aroused. He would require students to take baths with him and sleep with him overnight.

Public disclosure healthy

In December of 1992, an extensive Milwaukee Journal investigation was published which reported claims by dozens of former St. Lawrence students that sexual abuse and assaults had been occurring at the seminary for several decades with the awareness of Capuchin and archdiocesan authorities.

Over the next several years the story of abuse at St. Lawrence would continue to make the front page of the newspaper and the national media, leading to a church-funded investigation identifying at least nine Capuchins involved in sexually abusing students at the seminary.  Two arrests resulted.

None of the public accounts, much to the Provincial Reinhart’s surprise, included the sexual crimes being committed by Father Hahn.

Throughout 1993, Father Reinhart would devote considerable Capuchin resources to covering up Hahn’s crimes but at the same time he could issue this public statement and several like it:

As distressful as this is to the church and all the good people involved, I believe it is healthy to have these incidents [of sexual abuse] made public, and I deeply respect those who are victimized for their courage in coming forward.  Unless all of us—students, alumni, Capuchin staff and the public—are fully informed we cannot take constructive actions necessary to deal with it.

“Could become another major scandal”

Capuchin authorities were alarmed that the media would discover the priest’s decades-long history of criminal behavior at the seminary and Holy Name parish.

Father Reinhart wrote in 1993 while Hahn was in St. Louis for treatment that:

Information about Jude’s previous behaviors of the 1980’s when he was Associate Pastor, along with being a professor at the seminary, is public knowledge both in the parish that he was Associate Pastor and to the news media in the Wisconsin area.  They have chosen not to print this matter up to this point, but it certainly could become another major scandal.

In January, the provincial had written to Father Hahn that, “Over the past couple of weeks a number of incidents of alleged sexual abuse on your part have been brought to our attention by people who may have been minors.” 

Although the provincial sympathized with the priest that “you do not like to hear this kind of information,” he asks the friar “not to minimize or deny any of these allegations that have consistently come forward.”

The priest could be assured that the Capuchins would support Father Hahn during these “difficult times,” but that didn’t mean he should take advantage of their generosity.  The priest’s credit card bills were soaring:  “I recognize there are things that you need, but this is an extremely high cost for anyone.”

Archbishop’s authority requested

By March Father Hahn was refusing treatment.  He began pressuring church authorities to grant him a canonical dispensation so he could leave the priesthood and return to the lay state in good standing.  This would require the direct permission of his local ordinary, Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

The provincial had ordered the friar to accept a transfer to provincial headquarters in Detroit where “suitable” work would be found for him.  But Father Hahn was insistent.  He wanted the dispensation. To do so would take a lengthy administrative and investigative process required by Catholic canon law.

In a document entitled “Summary of Pastoral Attempts by the Religious Ordinary of Jude Hahn,” Provincial Reinhart wrote that, “In December of 1992 and January of 1993, new allegations of inappropriate and sexual behavior came to our attention.  These allegations were made with male children under the age of 18, which by United States law is a felony and is punished by prison time.  These were presented to him as information I received.  He did not deny these.”

The document goes on to detail Father Hahn’s refusal to accept therapeutic help and move to Detroit. 

“While there is no immediate public scandal, there is much talk of his behavior in the village in which he had done these behaviors in the 1980’s.  I felt it necessary to remove him from that area.  I also believed because of legal ramifications in the United States, I could not allow him to function publicly as a priest.”

“Actions against small children”

In a related document concerning Father Hahn’s request for dispensation, Provincial Reinhart wrote:

Jude Hahn has been found psychologically to be a person who cannot accept his own illness as a pedophile.  This is a serious disease, which has high moral and legal implications.  We have attempted to help Jude in this matter through a therapeutic process and through good spiritual direction.  He has resisted this and acknowledges in his conversation with me that he does not know if he would do these actions against small children again.  Such a risk of further actions by a priest and Capuchin in the church would be a serious scandal to the public.

Father Reinhart’s mention of “small children” and Hahn’s official diagnosis of pedophilia establish that the priest was abusing not only teens but also children much younger.

Archbishop’s exemption needed

The provincial wanted Father Hahn’s dispensation “rushed” due to the “quickness of the scandal” and the “urgency” with which he was making the request. 

To do so, Father Reinhart would need Archbishop Weakland to make a special exemption from canon law to bypass the usual requirements of gathering witnesses and hearing testimony.  That way Father Hahn could be immediately released to the lay state.

“I think it is most appropriate that this dispensation be granted for the sake of protecting the Church and the Order from scandal and preserving the good name of Jude Hahn,” writes the provincial.

On March 30, 1993 Reinhart informed Father Hahn that his request for dispensation was being processed, looked favorable, and asked the priest to no longer function publicly.

I ask you to accept this in the spirit of obedience and to do so quietly.  We do not wish to engage in any scandal to the public in the Mt. Calvary area or any other area.  It is our understanding that you are choosing to move to another state and will be leaving this area shortly.  It is our hope that we can safeguard your public reputation and that you will continue to be supportive of the Capuchins and the Roman Catholic Church.

With this notification of suspension, I also send you my greetings and best wishes.

“Not well known in this area”

Archbishop Weakland granted the dispensation on April 6, 1993.

In a letter to the Capuchin Provincial, Weakland writes:

Dear Ken,

It is my opinion that there would be no scandal involved if a dispensation were granted to Jude Hahn and if he continued to live here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  To my knowledge he is not well known in this area (author emphasis).

Feel free to use this letter in writing to the Roman Sacred Congregation.

Apparently the archbishop was not yet aware yet that Father Hahn was planning to leave Wisconsin.  He did so, with the financial assistance of the Capuchins.  He now lives outside Seattle.

No Capuchin or archdiocesan official, including Capuchin Provincial Kenneth Reinhart or Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, has informed law enforcement in Wisconsin or Washington of Father Hahn’s criminal actions against childrenTo this date, neither seminary alumni, parents, parishioners at Holy Name or residents of the village of Mt. Calvary have been notified of Hahn’s criminal activities in Mt. Calvary which spanned three decades.

Archbishop opposes reporting bill

On May 20, 1993 Archbishop Weakland announced that he was hiring a full time coordinator for Project Benjamin.

“I have said it before and I say it again—any form of sexual abuse in the church or in society can never be justified or excused,” the archbishop said in a prepared statement.

The new coordinator would “oversee child-abuse investigations, evaluations, treatment and monitoring of priests and ensure reporting requirements are met.”

On June 6 the archbishop and his fellow Wisconsin bishops, however, authorized their lobbyist, John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, to testify against a bill that would require them to report sexual abuse of a child. 

The Child Abuse Protection Bill would have put clergy on the list of over 20 professions in Wisconsin required to report child sexual abuse, such as doctors, therapists, teachers and dentists.

On the immediate passage of the bill, Archbishop Weakland, the Capuchin Provincial and other religious leaders in Wisconsin would have to report Father Hahn and other sex offender clergy to the police, bringing about the very public predicament church documents show they were so resolutely trying to avoid.

No bishop or religious order leader testified that day.  Presenting the position of the bishops, Huebscher argued that “most clergy already report sexual abuse when it came to their attention.” Anything, however, told to a member of clergy in confidence should not be reported to civil authorities, whether in confession or other “pastoral communications.”

Victims and others testified in favor of the bill, citing evidence of church cover-up and how, instead of being arrested, clergy sex offenders had been empowered to commit more crimes against children. 

Most clergy testifying disagreed and maintained there was no need to change the law.  They were certain that the vast majority of their professional colleagues would report cases to authorities despite the code of confidentiality if it would help save an endangered child.

The bill was eventually defeated.

Published reports

Public accounts of sexual abuse by Capuchins during the early and mid-1990’s were not focusing on the crimes of Father Jude Hahn but other members of the order.

One chronic offender was the former rector or principal of the school, Father Gale Leifeld.  Father Leifeld was the main subject of the first published revelations concerning the school in late 1992. 

Father Leifeld joined the Capuchins in 1947 and was ordained a priest in 1954.  He died of testicular cancer in 1994 at age 66 while facing a number of civil cases against him for sexually abusing former seminary students.  

Father Leifeld spent his entire career as a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, at St. Lawrence for 28 years and then as vice-rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology in Franklin.  A Shorewood native, the priest also assisted at St. Robert’s in Shorewood, a large archdiocesan parish with a popular parochial school.  

Throughout the course of his ordained career, a steady flow of reports of sexual abuse made their way to Capuchin authorities concerning Father Leifeld.  Neither civil authorities, nor parents or parishioners were ever notified of any of the reported incidents.

The earliest known report came as early as 1966 when a student told two senior Capuchin staff at the seminary that Father Leifeld had sexually assaulted him on several occasions.  No action appears to have been taken.

The priest was also the school’s director of guidance and one of its most popular spiritual directors.  All students were required to meet regularly with a Capuchin for private spiritual instruction.  These provided routine opportunities for Father Leifeld and other Capuchin offenders to sexually abuse students.

Ready confessions, career advancement

Until civil cases were filed in the 1990’s, Father Leifeld, when caught, appears to have readily confessed to his superiors that he was sexually abusing the particular student who was reporting him. 

Father Leifeld’s admissions of repeated crimes of sexual abuse had no adverse effect on his career advancement.  The priest remained in his various posts at the school with little or no supervision and received steady promotion until, in the Spring of 1976, he was put in charge of the school.

Leifeld would explain to his superiors that his sexual behavior with students was the result of the stress of his difficult job; sometimes he believed loneliness was a factor.  Capuchin superiors would engage the priest in prayer and spiritual counseling.  They urged him to fraternize more closely with his fellow Capuchins at the seminary, even if he felt distant and at times unappreciated by them for all his hard work.

“Moral problems”

After years of reports, in 1982 Father Leifeld’s provincial superior, Father Ron Smith, quietly transferred the priest from the seminary after a secret provincial investigation found that he was sexually abusing students. 

Smith recalled in a 1994 deposition that Leifeld was removed at the time for “moral problems.” 

Although concerned about the priest’s sexual activities with students, Smith worked hard to accommodate Leifeld’s transfer request for a “one man parish” where he could live alone and unsupervised with his elderly father. 

For example, Smith wrote the Archdiocese of Detroit in June 1983 asking if Father Leifeld, “a priest in good standing with us,” could be placed in a Detroit parish.  “He is looking for a one priest parish in which he would not be burdening anyone else by having his father, who is 81, living in the house with him.” 

Father Leifeld finally settled on a position at Sacred Heart in Franklin. His tenure there began in the recruitment office after which he soon found himself promoted to vice-rector, even though he lacked the typically required doctorate degree for such a position.

Father Leifeld was living alone in an apartment in Wauwatosa when in early December 1992 the Capuchin Provincial told him that the Milwaukee Journal was likely to report his sexual activity with students at the seminary.  

The priest pleaded with the provincial not to remove him from his job at Sacred Heart.  The Sacred Heart rector, Father Clifford, had been removed the previous month for sexual misconduct as well. 

What would happen to school morale if he, Leifeld, would also have to leave?

But Archbishop Weakland, under criticism for his role in allowing sexually abusive priests to remain in ministry, exercised his authority over the religious order by directing the Capuchins to remove the priest from his post and requiring him to leave the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

A year later Archbishop Weakland would grant his secret return.

Nearly three decades of abuse

For over two decades students and alumni of St. Lawrence Seminary were reporting to Capuchin school or provincial authorities that Father Leifeld was or had been sexually molesting them. 

The sexual abuse would occur on the floor of the priest’s office, in his private bedroom, in the movie projector booth, in his car.  The abuse would happen on camping trips or during vacation and summer breaks when he would visit student’s homes.  He would assault students while conducting confession, spiritual direction and counseling sessions.  When disciplining some students for breaking school rules, he would sexually assault them.  He did so, for nearly three decades, in his role as history teacher, dean of students, movie booth supervisor, Boy Scout leader and eventually rector.

Testimony by former students indicates that Father Leifeld would frequently offer the youngsters cigarettes and alcohol before he would sexually assault them.

The priest routinely plied one young victim with alcohol before each assault during the 1980-81 school year.  The next school year the priest announced at a faculty meeting that the youth was bringing alcohol to campus and had a drinking problem and would be ordered to attend AA meetings in Fond du Lac.

Some students were abused for years. One victim, who later became a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit, reported to the Capuchin provincial that the abuse happened “at least a hundred times,” sometimes “two or three times a week,” from 1974 to 1978. 

Father Leifeld would often develop a close relationship with the parents of his victims who liked and admired him.  He could be found regularly visiting student’s homes during Christmas and Easter vacation or over the summer break.  He would take students for trips in his car where he would engage in sexual contact.  If invited to stay as an overnight guest at student’s homes, the priest would use the opportunity to commit more sexual assaults.  Such was the case for at least three consecutive summers with the youngster who became a Detroit priest.

One familiar tactic employed by the priest was to ask students in confession about masturbation.  If a student would confess that he had masturbated, Leifeld would instruct the boy to see him in his office to “discuss his sexuality.” 

One Chicago student testified in a deposition that on some “20 occasions” during the 1980 school year the priest “would masturbate me and have me masturbate him and make me perform oral sex on him.” 

According to court records, the youth reported the abuse to a Capuchin faculty member, Father Frank Voris, whose “answer was vague, telling me that the problem is that I am not comfortable with my sexuality.  He said and did nothing and nothing further was done about this to my knowledge.”

13 year-olds “not believable”

In the Summer of 1974, parents of a freshman from Green Bay became concerned when their son begged them to tell Father Leifeld he was sick and couldn’t see him when the priest suddenly appeared over Easter break at the family’s front door.  The Capuchin had arrived unannounced that morning to take the student for a trip to Milwaukee. 

Records show that Father Leifeld had sexually assaulted the student “every two to three weeks” during the previous school year. 

Typically the priest would reach into the child’s pants and masturbate the boy until ejaculation.  Father Liefeld would then “pull out his handkerchief and clean up.”  The assaults occurred in the priest’s office and in his car during an off campus trip.

The victim’s parents insisted the youngster tell them why he didn’t want to see the priest.  The youngster “broke down” and told his parents about the sexual abuse.  Both parents drove to the seminary that day and reported the abuse to the rector, Father Joseph O’Conner. 

According to testimony by the victim’s mother, Father O’Conner told the parents:  “No one will believe the word of a 13 year-old boy against a priest.”  The boy never returned to St. Lawrence.

Desperate acts of resistance

According to court records, some students tried to physically resist the assaults; most were paralyzed or too afraid. 

In one incident, the priest ordered a Chicago area victim to lie down on the floor where Father Leifeld proceeded to unzip the youngster’s pants and grab his genitals.  The victim, a 14-year-old freshman, hit the priest.  He was expelled the next week. 

A Fond du Lac student, who had been instructed to perform oral sex on the priest in the movie projector booth, bit down on the priest’s penis.

The student reported the incident to a senior Capuchin staff member, Brother Kevin Hoelscher, the school’s athletic director.  Unknown to the student, Brother Hoelscher was also sexually abusing students.

One former Minnesota student recalled how he was referred to Brother Hoelscher for help after he confided in another Capuchin that he had a sexual encounter with another student from his junior class.  After discussing the matter in his office, Brother Hoelscher instructed the student to come into his bedroom, take off his clothes and stand in front of a mirror and masturbate. 

In 1982 Brother Hoelscher was removed from the seminary and put into treatment.  He left the Capuchins the following year.  He is now married with a family and lives in New Holstein, a few miles from St. Lawrence.

Brother Hoelscher appears to have simply taken the report from the Fond du Lac victim back to Father Leifeld.

Armed with the report, Father Leifeld, according to the student, called him to his office and “was in a rage.”  Again the priest attempted to assault the student, this time in the presence of the boy’s twin brother.  The twin began screaming.  A lay administrative assistant walked in and interrupted the assault. 

Father Leifeld had yet to receive his official appointment as rector and apparently had not realized that there was an adjoining door to his new office that provided easy secretarial access to the room.  “He always locked the doors before the assaults in his old office,” recalls the victim. “He locked one door, must have not realized that the secretary’s door was still unlocked.  I guess even rapists make mistakes.”

The secretary who happened upon that particular assault never reported the crime to the police but the Capuchin authorities were notified and the sexual abuse appears to have stopped, at least for these two youngsters. “I thought the Capuchins were taking care of him and I could push everything out of my mind and pretend none of it happened, that it was all over,” testified the victim.  “Believe it or not I didn’t hate Father Leifeld, I just wanted him to get help.” 

It was a sentiment echoed by many former students.

Psychological retaliation

Other students testified that if they defied the priest he would order them into psychological testing. 

Father Leifeld would call the student into his office, hold the test results in the air, and notify the youngster that he was “mentally ill” and “sick.”  These sessions could go on for months.  Sometimes the priest would page the youth from class and begin the ritual all over.  Students were never allowed to see the results of these tests.  Parents were never informed they had been administered.

One former Milwaukee student being sexually abused by the priest recalls being so distraught by the harangues that he was determined to end his life.  “I believed him when he told me I was mentally sick and depraved.”  After Leifeld left the seminary in 1982, the student requested the test result from the new rector and was told he was “normal.”

Temper problems

Sometimes the Capuchin would lose his temper and physically assault students. 

A former student from Appleton recalled how the priest, after writing to his father that the youngster was failing his classes, took him to the basement of the administration building one evening.  “He threw me against the wall and punched me in the stomach three times.  He threatened he would throw me out of school if I didn’t do my homework.”

As for reporting the incident:  “There was no one to report this to because he was the rector at the time,” recalls the former student.

A Lansing, Michigan youth told school authorities in 1978 how the rector was having sexual contact with him and had done so “at least 50 times” since the boy entered the seminary two years earlier. The student testified how, as the sexual abuse was occurring, he could hear his friends “talking as they walked down the hall that was on the other side of the bedroom.” 

He said he was afraid to report the abuse at first because homosexual contact between students was grounds for immediate expulsion. 

Reports indicate that in 1978 Father Leifeld immediately expelled two students who were discovered having sex.  The very next day he took the Lansing victim to his room and sexually abused him.

When the student told the priest he wanted the sexual contact to end, Father Leifeld pinned the student to the bed and violently began masturbating him.  The student begged the priest to stop.  The Capuchin persisted. 

Archbishop contacted

The distraught youngster reported the sexual assault in confession to Father Joseph Diermeier, the vice-rector. 

The next day Father Diermeier contacted Archbishop Weakland to see if he could take the matter out of confession.  He was told that he could but would need to ask the student to do so.  The youngster agreed and recounted the sexual abuse to Father Diermeier and Brother Dismas Seward, the school’s dean of discipline.  Brother Seward testified that he and Father Diermeier talked to Father Leifeld, who admitted to the sexual contact.  Seward reported the abuse to the provincial, Father Ron Smith, who also interviewed the student. 

Father Leifeld agreed to seek spiritual counseling with a Capuchin.  Father Deirmeier was appointed rector of the school after Leifeld’s departure in 1982. Brother Seward remains the school’s dean of discipline to this day.

Transfer delayed

Another victim reported Leifeld in 1978 to the Capuchin director of the senior class, Father Brian Braun, who confronted the priest. 

Reports of fresh assaults continued into the early 1980’s when the Capuchin Provincial launched a secret investigation into the priest’s behavior.  It was determined that a transfer was in order for the priest.

According to provincial records, however, Father Leifeld needed to remain at the school for at least another year while his designated replacement, Father James Buser, could complete the graduate work necessary for state certification.

Court records show that Father Leifeld continued to sexually abuse students during this time period.

“Complicating the work of the seminary”

In February of 1981 Father Leifeld’s provincial superior, Father Ron Smith, on concluding his investigation of the Capuchin, wrote to the priest that he was “satisfied that there have been no more behaviors or activities such as I brought to your attention in December.”   Father Smith, before his election as Capuchin Provincial, was a long time administrative colleague of Father Leifeld’s at the seminary.

Provincial Smith goes on to say to Father Leifeld, however, that:

In the course of doing my study I was unhappy to find some generalizations due, in part, to your activities; these generalizations were based upon your actions, and being the Rector, have complicated the work of the Seminary staff and faculty.  In other words, some former students have concluded that a large percentage of the Capuchins in our Province engage in certain activities, which actions are condoned or allowed by the Religious Supervisors.

Father Smith writes that he does not know how many students or former students “feel this way” but there are “some significant ones, who are still interested in the Order, but who are wary.” 

They are confused and somewhat skeptical.  It seems as though our support of you as Rector of the seminary creates the impression that we also support all your activities!  This impression disturbs me very much!  And it is an ongoing cause of concern to me personally, and to the [provincial] council.

Grateful for “attention to individual students”

In May of 1982, in a formal letter of transfer, Father Smith thanks Father Leifeld on behalf of the Capuchins for “the many years of service at St. Lawrence.”  The provincial praises the priest for his tireless performance as “rector, dean of students, director of counseling and guidance, and teacher.” 

“You gave much attention to individual students and spent many hours advising them.” 

Father Smith apologized for any “difficulties” he may have created for the priest by his “own lack of communication.” 

It was time to move on.  “If there are things in the past,” writes the provincial, “that are burdensome, I hope that by God’s grace and the support of others, you will let the burdens of the past remain in the past and look forward to an enjoyable and relaxing sabbatical and future.”

Prognosis “not bright”

But “things” would not remain “in the past” for Father Leifeld or the Capuchins.

Provincial records show that reports concerning the priest continued to find their way to provincial headquarters in Detroit. 

In 1989, after one former student threatened the Capuchins with legal action if Father Leifeld was not removed from ministry, the new provincial, Father Ken Reinhart, ordered the priest to submit to a psychological evaluation.

In his evaluation Father Leifeld admitted to sexually molesting “maybe” half a dozen boys at the seminary, mostly between the ages of 13 and 15.  He told the evaluation team that “all the boys freely and willingly participated in these sexual experiences.” 

The Capuchin also told evaluators that since leaving St. Lawrence he had been involved sexually with two adult females he was counseling for marital problems. 

The priest could not explain his behavior and saw no pattern to his sexual activity.  Although Father Leifeld insisted that he stopped sexually abusing youngsters 15 years earlier, provincial records show assaults as recent as six years before.  Even so, writes the evaluation team, “It is perplexing to think that a man could molest children for a span of 15 years and then stop and not have done any molesting for the past 12 years.”

Perhaps that is why the psychiatrist on the team concluded that Father Leifeld was a “very poor historian regarding his sexual activities with teenage boys.”  The report repeatedly indicates that the priest’s memories seem “quite blurred as to his specific actions” with youngsters. 

Regret or contrition was not in evidence.  “The examiner was…quite impressed by the distinct lack of remorse or guilt admitted to by Father Leifeld.”

The report concludes that the priest’s “defensiveness and resistance” do not make him a good candidate for treatment.  “The research does not paint a particularly bright prognosis for such an individual.”

There is some reason to believe that impulsive sexual activity could occur again if Father Leifeld does not learn to deal with his sexual impulses differently.  Unfortunately, Father Leifeld might be resistive to such a recommendation because his usual way of dealing with such problems is to simply deny their existence.

“No hard feelings”

The 1989 report also includes a “spiritual evaluation” conducted by the former provincial, Father Ron Smith. 

Father Smith’s remarks are short.  He concludes that Father Leifeld “appears peaceful and content” but “lonely.”  He respects the Capuchin’s desire to “put things in the past.” As for recommendations about what the priest should do next: He should “seek out” a spiritual director, “make efforts” to spend more time with friars, and continue his “good friendships” with various families.  

Then current Provincial, Father Reinhart, in a May 1989 letter to Father Liefeld, endorsed Father Smith’s recommendations.  He suggested too that he find a mental health counselor, a spiritual director and “devise ways to get closer to the Capuchin community.”  He would be allowed to stay at his job at Sacred Heart and live alone.  He continued his pastoral ministry at St. Robert’s with families.

Father Reinhard requested that the priest supply the names of the “individuals referred to” during the evaluation.  He regretted any “hard feelings” the “whole uncomfortable process may have caused between the two of us.”

No “network of individuals”

In another letter from Father Reinhart to Father Leifeld during this time, the provincial is decidedly upbeat. 

He reports that the Capuchin attorney, Bob Bichler, was “very pleased and impressed” with his recent meeting with Father Leifeld.  The priest had supplied the names he was requesting.

“I, like you,” writes Reinhart, “wish there was some way we could put all of this behind us and go on with our lives.  It is regrettable that one has to be haunted with mistakes of the past.  At the same time, you recognize, as I do, that it is not the spirit of our society [to do so].”

On the legal front, the provincial confides that:

There have been no real further developments since I spoke to you in relation to any individuals.  I think we have a better picture of the total situation at this time and it seems Bob [Bichler] is more confident…It seems to me there is probably not much of a network out there between individuals and to deal with the present situation with a certain firmness and strong limitations would be to our advantage in the long run.

“Justified mistrust”

The next year, 1990, provincial records indicate that the Capuchins are upset with Father Leifeld over persistent “rumors” that he is in possession of a private trust fund set up for his father.  “All such funds must be handed over to the order,” writes Reinhart, “as required by his vow of poverty.” 

Capuchins, like all religious order priests, brothers and nuns, are forbidden to own any private property.

The trust, according to the priest’s superior, is a “direct violation of your vows.” Not only had Father Leifeld violated his vows by not turning in information about the trust, he had also done so by refusing to sign a legal last will and testament. 

Maybe that is why, according to Father Reinhart, “yours is one of the highest personal budgets in the province.”

The withholding of information, according to Reinhart, “verifies at least to some degree my reason for distrust and suspicion in you.” 

The provincial is incredulous:  “I have gone out of my way and expended much time and energy and the province expended a significant amount of finances in attempting to resolve past situations and to protect your good name.”

Still unresolved

In July of 1991, the provincial writes to Father Leifeld again.  The issue of the trust fund is “still not resolved” and “another report of abuse had reached” Detroit.  “A recent legal advisor also commented about the necessity for friars who are in your type of situation to be living in a community environment,” writes Reinhart.

Still, Father Leifeld was permitted to live alone and unsupervised.

A year later, the provincial informs Father Leifeld that he has talked to “at least nine former students” sexually abused by the Capuchin.  The provincial lawyers have the names of “five or six” more.  Two victims, he tells the priest, have been reimbursed approximately $3,000.00 each for counseling costs. 

Father Leifeld, according to the provincial, followed through on only one of the recommendations from his 1988 psychological evaluation and occasionally visited a Capuchin for spiritual direction.

“Articles against us”

In January 1993, Reinhart writes to Father Leifeld that the “Milwaukee Journal…along with other vicious media…is still investigating matters and plans to do more articles against us.”

He promises to pray for the priest.  He asks for Father Leifeld to in return: “Pray for us as a province as we, too, experience a trauma as a group and as individuals.”  The ordeal of being subject to criminal, civil and media scrutiny has brought the two Capuchins, sometimes at odds, closer together:  “I respect you as a brother.”

There was still, however, the matter of the trust.   “Expenses are being incurred for attorneys and public relations firms for pending lawsuits, including many that are being prepared against you because of your actions.”  The trust must be turned over.  “I know this sounds crass and cold at this time but it is a harsh reality that we now face.”

Helpful witness

During an October of 1994 deposition, Father Leifeld admits to abusing youngsters at St. Lawrence Seminary.  When pressed, he confessed that his actions may have caused “spiritual damage” to his young victims but is quite certain that he caused no psychological or emotional harm.

He warmly recalls his days at the seminary but has difficulty remembering the names of students he assaulted or dates of those assaults.

About half way through the testimony, getting lost in a tangle of names, the priest offers a helpful suggestion.  Identifying the victim from his state of origin would make identification easier:  “Let’s call that one ‘Michigan one’ and the other one ‘Michigan two.’”

Welcomed back to Milwaukee by Archbishop

Knowing that Father Leifeld’s sexual behavior was about to become public in December 1992, Archbishop Weakland exercised his authority and ordered the Capuchins to remove the priest from his post at Sacred Heart.  The Capuchins placed him in a church operated facility for sex offender priests in New Mexico. 

By the Spring of 1993, a new provincial, Father Anthony Scannell, replaced Father Reinhart.  Father Scannell made a public promise that the priest would never return to Milwaukee.  Father Scannell had spent most of his Capuchin career in public relations for dioceses in California but returned to the Midwest when elected to the Detroit based position. 

By this time, Archbishop Weakland, at the request of a new Capuchin Provincial, was ready to grant Father Leifeld’s return and permit him to live in an apartment in Milwaukee across the street from an elementary school.

In a letter from Weakland to Father Scannell, the archbishop writes:

Just a note to put in writing what I am sure Bishop Sklba said to you personally on the phone.  I have no problem with Gale Leifeld’s living here in Milwaukee with Father Alex Luzi.  I hope that will work out well for him.

Unfortunately, Father Leifeld would not be able to perform public ministry at this time.

I think that this is most important, because any kind of public appearance would mean the whole story would be resurrected again in the press.

The Milwaukee Archbishop closes his letter by mentioning that he “had a delightful visit at Calvary a couple of weeks ago and found the spirit there quite good.”

In an October 1993 letter to Father Leifeld and his new elderly Capuchin housemate, the provincial writes that Father Liefeld was “going to have to notify [his housemate] whenever he was leaving the house and where he was going.” 

This is regrettable, declares the new provincial:   “I always hesitate to do something like this for adults but…it is the only way I can allow Gale to live in quarters that, although they are not really private, are not strictly speaking one of our community residences.”

Reconciled with God

Weakland’s fears materialized, however, after a Milwaukee television station obtained and aired portions of Leifeld’s deposition which had been videotaped.

Graphic testimony by the priest appeared that evening on televisions across the area.  Father Leifeld could be seen leaning back in his chair, arms stretched comfortably over his head, trading barbs with the plaintiff’s attorney, all the while confessing to sexually assaulting youngsters. 

News reporters attempted to interview the priest at his new private residence but the Capuchins had moved him once again. 

Father Leifeld was then placed in a Capuchin monastery outside of Wausau and found himself living in a community with other friars, something he had successfully resisted for well over a decade.   He died in the early Spring of 1995.  In a private service at St. Robert’s attended mostly by Capuchins, the homilist assured his fellow Franciscans that, “despite the stories,” the priest had died “at peace and fully reconciled with God.”

As for his victims, all the civil cases and any hope for justice against Father Leifeld and the Capuchins were dropped a few months later when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled, by a margin of one, in favor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that the first amendment barred claims against the church for such actions as negligent supervision.

“Gentle Giant”

The December, 1992 Milwaukee Journal investigation also named Father James Buser, another Capuchin on faculty at the seminary, as the subject of numerous accounts of sexual abuse and assault of minors.

Father Buser was a Port Washington native who joined the Capuchins in 1963.  He was ordained to the priesthood in 1971.  Outside of a year of study in Germany, Buser spent his entire career teaching and training youngsters to prepare to enter religious life and the priesthood at St. Lawrence.

He was appointed the seminary’s vice-rector and was designated to replace Father Leifeld as rector.

Father Buser was always Father Leifeld’s top choice to replace him and he urged provincial authorities to agree.  Father Leifeld’s deposition testimony praises his Capuchin colleague for his intelligence, commitment to religious life and his capacity to handle stress well.  Father Buser first needed to complete a year of administrative study to obtain the necessary credentials to run the school.

Father Buser died unexpectedly before Christimas of 1981.  The funeral service packed the seminary church.  Mourners filled the pews and were pouring out of the chapel and into the vestibule.  At 6’4”, the priest had towered over most students and was a physically strong man.  Because he never shaved, following the traditional rule of the order, a vast beard flowed over his chest. 

The Capuchin eulogist at the funeral was Father Buser’s close friend and seminary official, Father Charles Robinson.  Father Robinson struggled to comprehend the seeming senselessness of the unexpected loss, not only to current and past students of the seminary, but to all the future youngsters whose “life would never be touched and transformed by the ‘gentle giant’ of St Lawrence.”

Abuse reported to rector

Court records, depositions and provincial documents show that Father Buser had repeatedly raped, sodomized and sexually molested students at the seminary right up until the time of his death.  Most of the priest’s victims came from the freshman class.  Before his appointment as vice rector, Father Buser, like Father Hahn, was the freshman class director and dorm supervisor. 

These crimes were brought repeatedly to the attention of Capuchin authorities at the school.  Either no action was taken or reporting students were punished or mysteriously expelled from school soon after their reports were made. 

The recipient of many of these reports was Father Gale Leifeld, the school’s chief administrator.  Capuchin faculty members other than Father Leifeld were also receiving information about Father Buser sexually assaulting students.

Teaching students about ambition

In the Fall of 1971, one new freshman from the Milwaukee area was performing poorly in mathematics and ordered into tutoring with Father Buser. 

According to the former student’s deposition, Father Buser would explain certain math problems and administer a test at the end of the tutoring session.  When the youngster didn’t get all the answers correct, the priest would “start yelling at me, calling me ‘stupid and lazy,’ just berating me.”

He then ordered the student, as punishment, to bend over the desk and drop his pants so he could be “taught some ambition” and began hitting the youngster’s buttocks.  According to the victim: 

He had me pinned on the desk.  I tried to get away from him and he was hitting me so hard that, you know that all I wanted to do was escape.  I tried moving left and right, you know, trying to get away from him forcing me down on the desk and he grabbed my genitals, and squeezed to the point where I started collapsing on the floor.

The priest, looking down at the youngster on the floor, continued his discourse on ambition.  “He said he wasn’t going to waste his time with me if I couldn’t be taught some ambition.  He told me he was going to give me the drive I needed to be a good student…the discipline.”

Father Buser approached the youngster a few days later and arranged for another “tutoring” session. 

The student was instructed in math problems and administered a test.  After correcting the results, the priest berated the youth again:  “He told me he was going to make it where I would want to learn.”  Again the student was instructed to bend over the desk and drop his pants.  The priest began hitting the student. 

When the youngster tried to resist the priest, according to the victim, he

... grabbed me by the genitals and—and squeezed, and I believe I passed out from the pain, and the next thing I could remember was he had me pinned on—on the desk, and he was sodomizing me…I was—I tried to yell and scream.  He took his hand over my mouth.  I kept on turning my face and trying just to yell out for help, and he shoved his hand in my mouth, and—started gagging me, and I tried to bite him, the deeper he’d shove his hand down my throat.  Basically, I think it got to a point where—where I just tried to stop resisting him…when it was all over I crawled underneath the desk and waited there for quite some time.  I curled up underneath this desk and I really don’t know how—how much time passed.  I remember he left the room.
The student was bleeding from the rectum after the assault.

Faculty report

The following weeks the victim tried to avoid the priest but would see him “all over campus,” officiating at the daily school mass and conducting his other duties as class supervisor and faculty member.  On two occasions, Father Buser tried to grab the youngster.  During the second incident, which occurred outside the cafeteria, the student tossed his books at the priest, ran off the campus and hid in the woods below the hill.  When he returned hours later the books were on his dorm bed.

The victim began skipping classes, hiding out in dorm, and not attending mandatory prayers and other assignments.

The student’s class counselor, Father John Zickert, called the boy into his office and ordered the student to tell him what was happening.  The student reported the sexual abuse “in so many words…I didn’t know the words, ‘sexual molestation’ or anything like that but he understood what I was saying.”  

The priest, who appears to have been earlier approached by Father Buser about the youngster, told the student:  “Get the hell out of my office.”

The harassment by Buser did end after that.  Fr. Zickert, however, never spoke to the student again, would not acknowledge the youngster when passing in the hallways, and removed him from work assignments, some of which he needed in order to pay tuition. “It was like I became a complete outcast.”  

The student’s parents were informed at the semester break that the family could no longer afford to have the boy attend the seminary.

More reports to the rector

According to the December 1992 Journal story, in the Fall of 1974, two students from Fond du Lac reported to Father Leifeld and another Capuchin administrator that Buser had exposed himself to them in his dormitory office.   No action appears to have been taken. 

One of the youngsters had been ordered by Father Buser to attend spiritual direction sessions in the priest’s dorm office.  The office, which was located in a hallway between the two large dorms, contained a private bedroom.  The Capuchin had replaced Father Zickert as the director of the freshman class and was responsible for dorm discipline.  He slept overnight in the dorm’s office bedroom.

The student reported that Father Buser would begin his spiritual guidance sessions by asking how the youngster was “progressing” through puberty.  He would then order the boy to pull down his pants so the priest could “examine” the boy’s genitals.  “Then he began to rub my penis and masturbate me.”

A West Bend student recalls in court testimony how in the early Winter of 1976 Father Buser befriended him during a spiritual counseling session in the priest’s office. 

After spending most of the first session discussing the Bible, the priesthood and the boy’s family, Father Buser concluded the session by asking how the youngster was dealing with puberty and said he needed to examine the boy’s penis to see if “everything was going along O.K.”

“He told me to remove my pants to see my privates and touched me, touched my penis, and basically handled it like a doctor, like I was going in for a physical.”

A few nights later, during the next session, Father Buser asked again to “check” on the youngster’s “progress.”  “While continuing to talk of other things, he masturbated me, like nothing unusual was happening and I ejaculated.”

Suicide attempt

The youngster began avoiding the priest but Father Buser called the student to his office two weeks later.  Again he instructed the student to remove his pants.  This time the youngster froze and would not comply; the priest began pulling the pants down himself.

The student pushed the priest away and fled the dorm and made his way into the infirmary where he stole “some kind of pills” and attempted to kill himself.  The Capuchin nurse found him and pumped his stomach.

Buser brought the boy back to the dorm and ordered him never to tell anyone about the sexual contact or there “would be trouble.”

It was the first of three such suicide attempts by the youngster over the next several years.

Attempts at suicide were not uncommon among students being abused by Capuchins.  Success often came later in life.  Another West Bend student abused at the seminary fatally shot himself on Christmas Eve, 2001.

Kneeling out

After the first suicide attempt, the West Bend freshman victim began having disciplinary problems in school. 

According to court records, Father Buser routinely punished students with the common seminary disciplinary practice of “kneeling out” on the stone stairway behind the dorm prefect’s office.  Sometimes the priest would increase the punishment by requiring the victim to hold an encyclopedia in each outstretched hand.  The most punitive measure would be to place a broomstick under the knees of the youngster.

Once Father Buser discovered the West Bend victim and two other freshmen trying to plug the bathroom sinks in the dorm, hoping to cause an overflow.  The priest ordered the victim to kneel out in his office and put broomsticks under his knees.  The priest said that if he put his mouth on the priest’s penis he would not force him to kneel any longer; if he didn’t he would “kneel for a month.”  The student would not.  He kept kneeling.

The victim and “three or four other students” reported the sexual abuse to Father Liefeld, the rector.  Father Leifeld told them he would “take care of it.”

Afterwards, the disciplinary measures by Buser increased.  For the “whole second semester,” according to testimony, the victim could be found “kneeling out” and scrubbing floors.  The priest would also confiscate the student’s personal items, such as snacks and deserts sent from home.

The student did not return to St. Lawrence for his sophomore year.

Not “seminary material”

A Chicago area student’s sexual assaults by Father Buser began in the Fall of 1977.  The last incident occurred at the end of his sophomore year in 1978.  Like the previous victim, the abuse was reported to Father Leifeld. 

Father Liefeld was appointed the youngster’s spiritual director.

After the assault, where the youth was forced to perform oral sex on Father Buser, the victim reported the sexual abuse.  Father Liefeld began massaging the boy, a gesture he described in court deposition as a “common means of comforting students seeking his guidance.”  The rector warned the student that if the sexual activity was discovered he could “find himself in trouble” and likely be told to “leave the seminary.”  

Father Buser continued to assault the youngster for the rest of his freshman year. Sometimes the victim would wake up in the middle of the night and find the priest “would be fondling me or putting his finger in my anus.”

The student continued to report the abuse to Father Liefeld in spiritual direction.  Father Leifeld’s response was to massage and rub the student’s back as he reached into his pants.  The youngster resisted.  The priest told the student that if it continued to resist, the Capuchins would take “action against you to kick you out and tell your family.”

Eventually Father Leifeld told the student that he would not be asked to return to the school:  “You’re not seminary material, not serious enough to become a priest,” he was told.

Yet another student who was being abused by Buser in 1978 reported the assaults to a faculty member, Brother Ben Johnson, in spiritual counseling.  Johnson told the student he needed to talk to the Capuchin dean of discipline, Brother Dismas Seward. 

Records show that Brother Seward had received reports of abuse for several years.  Again, no action was taken against Father Buser.

Next of kin

Father Leifeld testified in deposition that he was “surprised” to hear about Father Buser’s behavior.  He denied any reports of sexual abuse coming to him as rector about any Capuchin. 

“Buser,” said Father Leifeld, “wasn’t a pedophile.” 

“He’s not that kind of man.”

When asked by an alumnus in the Summer of 2003 if he was aware of the sexual abuse taking place at the seminary, Brother Seward, the dean of discipline, replied that he was. 

“Why,” asked the former student, “didn’t you report it?” 

“I did, to my superiors.” 

The former student, startled, persisted:  “Why didn’t you report it to the authorities so it would stop?” 

The Capuchin’s answer was laconic:  “I had to go to the hospital a few months ago.  Do you know what I have to write on the form for next of kin?  The provincial.”

Capuchin investigation

With the mounting publicity in 1993, the Capuchins hired a Milwaukee law firm to conduct a confidential investigation concerning the stories which concluded in May 1993 that at least nine friars were involved in sexual acts of misconduct with students from 1968 to 1992.  Although the Capuchins promised counseling costs for those who participated in the investigation, records show that Capuchin attorneys “reserved the right” to determine “cost and length of treatment.”

In the meantime, former students of the seminary would form their own self-help organization for victims and press for reform.  The victim’s group turned over to the investigators the names of 20 friars who had committed acts of sexual abuse.

Many victims in contact with the group declined to participate in the investigation because they feared it was not independent. 

The former students’ efforts didn’t sit well with one of the Capuchin’s attorneys, Gerald Boyle.  At a press conference that May, Boyle threatened a defamation suit against the students and released a statement that they had better “zip it up.”  No motions were ever filed.

The new Capuchin provincial, Anthony Scannell, however, appeared contrite.  He revised the provincial sexual abuse policy, created a review panel to include lay people, and vowed to meet with the students.

The meeting never occurred.

Court records show that the review panel appears to have met once by 1995.  The order’s legal team conducted the meeting.  The one mental health expert on the panel resigned after the first meeting when the group was told by the lawyers that they would probably would meet “rarely, if ever, and only at the provincial’s request.”

Racketeering charges

A steady stream of public revelations of abuse and lawsuits by former students and others continued to shadow the Capuchins, even after their report was issued, the abuse policy revised, and the order had promised to meet with victims.

In March of 1994, a state racketeering suit was filed against the Capuchin Province and the leaders of the seminary for creating “a decades-long environment that encouraged the sexual abuse of children.”

The charges were filed as an amendment to the 1993 suit of a former seminary student from Brookfield who was assaulted by a friar at the school from September 1985 through June 1989. 

Further cases were being prepared against Capuchins not named in any public accounts, according to provincial records.

According to court records, the basis of the 1993 suit was the abuse of the Brookfield student by the athletic director who “sexually abused, harassed and stalked” the student.  A youngster had previously reported to Capuchin authorities that the same friar, Brother Thomas Gardipee, had sexually abused him over a three-year period, from 1980-1983, beginning in eighth grade.

The racketeering claim charged that Capuchin authorities tried to silence victims of sexual abuse and employees who knew of the abuse; moved friars from one assignment to another to keep their criminal activity unknown in order to “continue the stream of financial contributions from unwitting parishioners;” tolerated sexual activity by failing to report accusations of abuse to police or parents of victims; and destroying documents regarding sexual assaults and records of treatment facilities used by both victims and church employees.

All court action against the Capuchins ended after the 1995 Pritzloff decision. Provincial attorneys offered $5,000.00 to each plaintiff in exchange for an agreement with a confidentiality clause that would release the order from any liability.

Someday “the cover of Time”

In the Fall of 1980, as Fathers Jude Hahn, Gale Leifeld, James Buser and others were assaulting students at St. Lawrence and children in Mt. Calvary, one recently graduated student confided to a senior Capuchin official, Brother John Holly, that he had been sexually abused at the seminary. 

The Capuchin’s response:  “One day St. Lawrence will be on the cover of Time Magazine.” 

The Capuchin seminary did not make the cover, but in 1993 the sexual abuse occurring there did find its way into the magazine under the title, “The Sins of St. Lawrence.” 

The Time story detailed the results of the Capuchin sponsored investigation, the struggle of victims for justice, and the decades of what one observer told the magazine was an open “hunting season” on students by Capuchin sex offenders at the school.

Lessons Learned

On November 1, 2002 with the sexual abuse troubles in the church again receiving national attention, Father Guy Guraith, a media consultant and former graduate of St. Lawrence, conducted a seminar on sexual abuse and the media for the seminary’s 250 boys.  The first part of the program featured film clips from famous movies with priests as heroes and defenders of justice such as “Becket,” “On the Waterfront” and “Romero.”

The second part was a presentation led by Milwaukee attorney Boyle who represented the Capuchins in civil and criminal matters on several occasions.  

No victims of Capuchin sex offenders were invited on the panel.  Capuchin documents were not presented.

What had the Capuchins learned from the painful history of sexual abuse at the school?

Boyle told the students that the topic “isn’t worthy of being talked about.”  

But he managed to address it that evening at length.  Students should not be concerned about all of the attention given to the issue:  “The media has exaggerated stories about the priests because it hates Catholicism and doesn’t understand us. So they make each story more gigantic than it should be.”

There are many more doctors and lawyers than priests in jail, the Capuchin attorney assured the students. The “tiny” number of priests have “a sickness and gave into their emotions.”  “They said they were sorry and have gone on to live better lives.”  While “most people have much to answer for when they face God in the afterlife,” he was “confident every priest would be asked very few questions.”

The seminary’s current rector, Father Dennis Druggen, praised the attorney’s remarks as “realistic.”  “We address this in the classroom, but I think the kids are real tired of it,” he said. “It’s not their experience and they don’t want us bringing it up so much that it’s in their face,” according to the Capuchin leader.

Lapsus linguae and lapsus mentis

As for Milwaukee’s retiring archbishop, clergy sexual abuse, and not the new cathedral and other achievements, would dominate his last year in office and eventually come to define his final days.

In his last Herald of Hope columns, the archbishop occasionally referred to the subject of abusive clergy that was again engulfing the American church and the Milwaukee Archdiocese. 

Yes, there had been some lapses of speech (“lapsus linguae”) the archbishop explained in one column.  “Someone” had “dug up” some “infelicitous” remarks about victims of clergy abuse and now they are “coming to haunt me.”  They do not reflect what he really meant (“lapsus mentis”).  But it seems, the archbishop laments, each time he tries to explain himself he “just gets in deeper and deeper trouble.”  The man who had articulated the complex mission of the church for the modern age in such matters as economics, ecumenism and the rights of woman, who had delved into the subtleties of ancient church music, could not make himself clear on the matter of child sexual abuse. Most of these comments, the archbishop pleaded, he “doesn’t even remember.”

Undaunted, the archbishop reviewed in another column his tenure as Milwaukee’s leading Catholic.  He returned to a familiar theme, his relationship to Vatican authority:

Members of the Roman Curia often referred to me as a “maverick.”  (The word comes from Samuel A. Maverick, 1803-1870, a Texas cattleman, who refused to brand calves like the others.)  The best compliment I received, then, came from a religious superior in Rome who said:  “Rome does not know what do with Weakland.  He is a free man.”  I feel l have been able to maintain my own dignity and identity throughout it all.
As for his handling of clergy sex offenders, the archbishop had made a “mistake” with one priest, Father William Effinger.  If he were an abbot he would have put the priest in a monastery.  As a bishop, however, he didn’t have that option, at least “back then.”  No bishop thought of laicizing these priests; Rome “probably” wouldn’t have allowed it. Anyway, it is he, the archbishop, who would have to take the matter “to his grave.” 

Most significant, according to the archbishop, has been his concern for the poor, especially on a global level, which “remains a strong factor in my thinking.”  But there has been no “groundswell in that regard among our people.”

Nevertheless, going it alone when need be and living with a few regrets are the price of being a “maverick.” 

If the above [achievements] are being a maverick, so be it.  One could be called worse things.


In the Republic, Plato’s famous dialogue on the nature of justice, Socrates is found discussing the myth of the Ring of Gyges.  The ring, according to the myth, makes its wearer invisible.  What, asks Socrates, would happen if one possessed such a ring?

One would become unjust. 

To break the link between visibility and invisibility, between corporeality and its effect, between human presence and the limits imposed by the presence of others, would lead one inevitably and inexorably to become a tyrant, which for the ancient Greeks was the most reprehensible and dangerous of human beings.

What is the central quality of a tyrannical character?  That one can no longer grasp or, even worse, want to grasp, the singular fact which, Socrates argues, is the essence of the Good, that it is infinitely better to be the victim of an injustice than to be the cause of one. 

J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, derived the inspiration for his popular trilogy from Plato’s account.  Less well known is the work of Simone Weil, Plato’s greatest modern spiritual heir.  Writing in her journal on the eve of World War II, Weil concludes that the myth is about “setting things aside.”  When it is somebody else committing wrong we compare the good with the evil.  When it is ourselves, we set evil aside.

We set things aside without knowing we are doing so; that is precisely where the danger lies.  Or, which is still worse, we set them aside by an act of the will, but by an act of the will that is furtive in relation to ourselves.  Afterwards we do not any longer know that we have set anything aside.  We do not want to know it, and, by dint of now wanting to know it, we reach the point of not being able to know it.
“The faculty of setting things aside,” writes Weil, “opens the door to every sort of crime.”

It is particularly dangerous when the prestige and social imperative of a group or a profession endorse the action of setting things aside.  Any group is likely to exempt its own member’s behavior from the imperative of good and evil.  Once firmly placed within the profession or group, the evil one commits in accomplishing the group’s goals are set aside because the group’s goals are, naturally, vital and necessary:  soldiers waging war, business executives waging business, religious leaders waging religion. 

What for others might be crimes are for us mistakes, errors, lapses of judgment.  The connection between human cause and effect, action and consequence becomes blurred and provisional; unchecked, the line between good and evil, and our moral connection to it, disappears altogether.

That is why, concludes Weil, “We hate the people who try to make us form the connections we do not want to make.” 

There is always an incentive for most of us to side with the sexual predator and not the victim, as Anna Salter observes in her new book, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders.  The potential disruption caused by discovering one’s priest, teacher, or husband is a child molester is much greater then disbelieving or dismissing the victim, who is almost always of less social and psychological value than the predator.  The sex offender, after all, usually has all the “connections.”  But victims, she reminds us (and we cannot be reminded too often) are not the cause but the consequence of these terrible crimes. 

And while it may not have set out to silence and shame the victims of clergy sexual abuse by what amounted to the institutional interdiction of their memory and witness, that is exactly what the church, marshalling its vast and considerable resources, accomplished.   Why?  Because, unknown to the victim, their testimony—almost always, incidentally, confirmed and credible--formed a connection between sexual violence and church power, a connection that church authorities simply do not want to make.  It rendered visible what clergy and what church leaders were wearing: the Ring of Gyges.

After all, invisibility, in every major religious tradition, is an attribute and prerogative of the divine.

* Throughout this text "clergy" refers to ordained diocesan and religious order priests, deacons, and vowed religious order nuns and brothers. Pending Wisconsin legislation defines "clergy" as members "of a religious order, and includes brothers, ministers, monks, nuns, priests, rabbis, and sisters."

Hypertext by Terrence Berres
Revised April 24, 2005.