When the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese recently released secret documents linked to how the church dealt with sexual abuse of children by priests, the headlines focused on former Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s plans to pay abusers to leave the priesthood and to move $57 million into cemetery funds to protect the money “from any legal claim or liability.”
But those aren’t the only stories revealed in some 6,000 pages of documents the church had kept confidential for decades. The documents also shed light on issues pedophile priests were dealing with both before and after they abused children. They include letters to priests from archbishops who failed to face the issue of child abuse head on. And they reveal the anguish of the victims and the victims’ parents.
The documents, which were released July 1 as part of the church’s bankruptcy case, reveal the human side of the scandal.
Some of the priests said they had been sexually abused as children. The victims were often insecure and searching for guidance. And archbishops, in addition to trying to protect the church, felt a pastoral responsibility to priests who were abusers.
Only a few of the accused priests were criminally charged; many denied they did anything wrong. Most left the priesthood with severance pay or were allowed to retire with a pension, health benefits and a place to live. Of the dozen priests included in this story, three are still alive but have been stripped of their priestly ministry: Franklyn Becker, Michael Krejci and Thomas Trepanier, according to archdiocese records.
This story is based on a close review of the pedophile priest files, which include candid letters exchanged between accused priests and archbishops; sexual abuse intake reports; psychological assessments; letters from archbishops to the Vatican seeking counsel or formal action against priests; and letters from victims and their parents.
The pedophile priests
The documents show that many of the priests did not consider themselves criminals, but victims. Some were addicted to alcohol or pornography. They did good work in the church and helped many people. But they also had a dark side they either struggled to control or did not acknowledge.
Many did not express guilt or remorse; they couldn’t understand why they were treated severely after they had accepted counseling and done everything the archdiocese asked of them. Some acknowledged conflicted sexual orientation, loneliness, self-loathing, an inability to form healthy adult relationships. Psychologists concluded that at least one priest’s emotional development was stunted.
Father Eugene Kreuzer confessed to members of an unidentified parish in an undated letter:
“…There were allegations of my sexual abuse of minors some 30 years ago in a different parish. I express remorse and repent of these actions. However, for the good of the community I have decided that my continued presence at the parish is not helpful. I have been fully cooperative with the restrictions placed upon me. I do not exercise anyministry and am living out my life in a spirit of prayer and penance.This is a strong and loving parish community and I know you will respond to thisannouncement in the manner that is most appropriate, by praying for all those involved….”
Father Andrew Doyle sought a financial settlement in a letter to then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland:
” …you had indicated that you would grant me an unspecified amount of money as a severance. Because I have regular bills and a house payment, I ask that if it becomes necessary for a release from my orders, at that time you would consider an amount of $30,000 … I have tried to cooperate with the Archdiocese…I regret any pain I have caused you; I also have been in much myself.”
A letter from then-Archbishop Dolan to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Vatican offered his impressions of Father Franklyn Becker, who Dolan said refused to voluntarily give up his ministry rights as a sign of repentance:
“Father Becker has admitted that a number of these acts of sexual assault occurred… While he attempts to present a defense based on cooperation and need for sustenance, in interviews with him, there is little display of repentance. His sorrow is not over what effect his immoral and abusive behaviors had on others, so much as it is remorse that he has lost a sense of status…”
Several priests were referred for intensive treatment of alcoholism and psycho-sexual issues. A treatment progress report for Father Michael Krejci concluded, among other things:
“…Normal inhibiting mechanisms, such as guilt or remorse, do not appear to impede Michael’s problematic sexual behavior…”
Each archbishop had his own way of addressing accused priests.
Archbishop William Cousins wrote terse, formal letters to inform priests they were being transferred, which occurred frequently and quietly during his tenure from 1959 to 1977. Cousins did not document much, reflecting a time when sex abuse accusations against priests were not openly discussed.
Weakland, archbishop from 1977 to 2002, consistently expressed concern for the priests’ well-being and told them he was doing what was best for them and the church. He also exchanged letters with victims, acknowledging the bad effects of what had happened and encouraging them to forgive because “forgiveness brings spiritual growth.”
Weakland resigned in 2002 amid revelations that he had used church money to pay a $450,000 settlement to a man with whom he had had a sexual relationship years earlier.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan, whose tenure from 2002 to 2007 coincided with a change in direction by the Vatican in dealing with sex abuse cases, wrote stern letters to priests about their actions, while expressing concern for their well-being. In his letters to victims, Dolan apologized for their pain and offered them counseling services.
One internal exchange at the archdiocese was especially frank. This excerpt of a 2006 letter from Archdiocese Chancellor Barbara Anne Cusack to Dolan was about Father Michael Benham:
“Although Michael has apparently expressed remorse to you, I have not seen that remorse translate into action. The victim in this case requested a token amount of money as a gesture of recognition of the harm he had caused; Michael has consistently and adamantly refused to do so…This was not a one-time incident of indiscretion.
“There have to be consequences to actions. I do not doubt that an all-merciful God has forgiven Michael but an all-just God will also probably require some purgation for these actions…Michael’s life of solitude is made possible because we are paying his subsidy and could be doing so for the next 10 years until he is eligible for pension…I am not sure how we can justify this as ‘good stewardship’ of the resources people have entrusted to us… How do I honestly look a victim-survivor in the face in mediation and say we are acting consistently with Pope John Paul II’s statement that ‘there is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm a child?'”
A letter Dolan wrote in December 2002 to parishioners at an unspecified church about Father Thomas Trepanier acknowledged the need for accountability.
“We forgive those priests who have been guilty of this crime and sin, once they admit it — as most do, painfully and admirably — ask for mercy and repent. We know God forgives them; we must forgive them too; and I hope they can forgive themselves.
“Forgiveness, however, does not eliminate the need for those accused to take responsibility, to be held accountable for their behavior.”
One month before Dolan wrote to parishioners about forgiveness for Trepanier, he wrote to Trepanier:
“…While we await clearer resolution from the Holy See and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, I just wanted you to know that I have not forgotten about you, and that you have my love, concern, and prayerful solidarity…”
Dolan added a handwritten note in the margin: “Thanks for the green tea! I’ll be in touch soon.”
Seven years earlier, in 1995, a letter from Weakland to Father Eldred Lesniewski reflected a much different tone:
“…Every time you appear in public this way at the altar, Eldred, you risk stirring up people who have brought allegations. The network of such victims is enormous and very aggressive. You risk much unfortunate bad publicity against yourself, the priesthood and the Diocese…”
They were altar boys. Kids in need of a friend or a counselor. Boys and girls who for whatever reason caught the eye of the priest at school or in church. Perhaps the priest initially made them feel special with gifts or extra attention — a sleepover or a vacation on a Caribbean cruise. One priest invited boys to go up north on a camping trip in a hearse.
A man who said he was molested as a boy by Father Lawrence Murphy at St. John’s School for the Deaf finally confronted the priest decades later in a letter copied to Archbishop Weakland and Pope John Paul II:.
“…I cannot keep our secret about your life as a terrible molester at our school…You made us hate the Catholic church because we couldn’t understand how you could be such a hypocrite of a priest who taught us about God while you were the secret molester…
“I would lie awake every night shaking in fear that this would be a night you would touch me …Jesus on the cross on the wall saw you coming every night to molest us. He must have been shocked and grieved every time. I hope he cried like we did, because we were innocent children… The depth of your destruction is like a deep, dark, bottomless pit that has no end…The very least you could do is be sorry, but you aren’t…
“God lets no one into heaven who is not deeply, truly, and shamefully sorry for his sins — in your case, atrocities…My shame and my dirty secret are back where they belong, with you, their creator.”
The mother of one of Father Franklyn Becker’s victims wrote to Weakland in 1994, after accusations about pedophile priests began being reported by newspapers. Her son was abused by Becker at the Holy Family parish in Whitefish Bay in the 1970s, she said.
“As I later found out, this priest had a record in his previous parish and after leaving Whitefish Bay, continued on his merry way in parish after parish, both here and out of state….
“At the time that his offense against my son occurred, I was (redacted) very vulnerable and very committed to seeing that my children be educated in Catholic schools. That’s how he came to know my sons; we took him into our hearts and into our family…
“At no time did it ever occur to me to sue the Archdiocese or the priest… Money could never heal the scars left by one priest’s indiscretion. However, Archbishop Weakland, don’t for a minute smugly think that the only cases of clergy abuse out there are the ones that sue/or run to the media. All I really wanted over the past years was an acknowledgment by you and the Archdiocese that this problem existed and the seriousness of it….
“In addition to a deep sense of guilt for allowing, or even encouraging this to happen to my son some years ago, I have in the past few years experienced a loss of faith, an indifference to the church I was brought up in and now a real bitterness that this particular priest had been ‘rewarded’ with early retirement for a lifetime of botched assignments due to his fondness for the altar boys.”
Father George Nuedling gained sympathy from in-the-dark parishioners one day for an injury he sustained after molesting a victim, according to this letter the victim wrote to the archdiocese:
“…I fought as hard as I could for what seemed an eternity, and fortunately when he lost his grip on me I was able to run away. He tried to give chase but must have pulled something in his calf or hamstring area and fell to the ground (Jesus must have been with me).
“The next day in church it just galled me to hear other parishioners express their concern over Father Nuedling’s ‘bad limp’ and how it must have hurt…I just wonder how many other little boys this evil man harmed?”
Father George Etzel sent a Christmas card in 1992 to a victim, who by then was an adult. “I’m sad and sorry, and I wonder why,” he wrote.
The victim responded: “Thank you for the card and thoughts at Christmas… By the tone of your note…I see that you are also reflecting on your past life…and you know exactly what I am talking about.As I stated earlier, it is a time for forgiveness and hope. I forgive you for the things you have done to me. I hope you can make peace with your god…”
When it was time for his first confession, a 9-year-old victim thought he could anonymously tell a trusted adult about Father Siegfried Widera. But something stopped him, according to a letter he wrote as an adult on Aug. 1, 2002:
“…As I entered that booth, I was determined to end this. It was only to my horror that I entered the confessional and heard that voice that could belong to only one man. I can still to this day feel the devastation that entered me that day and the thought that it was a sign from God to keep my mouth shut. I went home that night and cried. A memory that burns in me to this day.
“A sense of relief only came after I found out he was gone. No explanation to the students and none that I can remember hearing about to the adults… I already know that this man was transferred to another church and he did it again. I live with the thought that I could have stopped this if only I had come forward sooner. And now I know that this man is on the run…
“I only wish I believed enough in prayer to pray for any child he comes across.”
Less than a year after the letter was written, Widera leaped to his death from a hotel balcony in Mexico as officials closed in to arrest him. He had been on the run for more than a year, and authorities considered him one of the most wanted sex-crime fugitives in the Western Hemisphere.