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Building a trust: Sheboygan priest joins with victims to raise awareness of clergy abuse

December 31, 2011

The following story appeared in the Sheboygan Press on December 30, 2011

Story by: Bob Petrie/Photo by Gary Klein Sheboygan Press

http://www.sheboyganpress.com/article/20111231/SHE0101/112310437/Building-trust-Sheboygan-priests-join-victims-raise-awareness-clergy-abuse?odyssey=mod%7Ctopnews%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE

For 16 years, Vicky Schneider held a deep and terrible secret from everyone, before she could finally muster up the courage and conviction to tell her parents.

The secret was at the age of 14, in the late 1970s, Schneider was sexually abused by a man who was trusted, loved and respected by herself and her family — a priest who was serving in the Archdiocese of Green Bay.

The abuse occurred at the family home in the Green Bay area, during the summer following Schneider’s eighth-grade school year. For a long time, she felt a strong sense of shame, and a feeling that no one would ever believe her if she told someone what had really happened.

“We were a very conservative Catholic family. The church was God,” said Schneider, now 46 and a Sheboygan resident for the past 20 years.

“We were faithful Catholics, we went to Mass religiously as a family and that was something that we did, so I think any priest was always elevated in our estimation as I was taught, and I didn’t have any kind of sense, for one, that a priest could be a sexual person,” she said.

Schneider told her parents of the abuse at the age of 30, still thinking they might not believe her, but now coming to a point in her life where she got into the mindset that it didn’t really matter if they did or didn’t.

“I had to reach the point where I was OK if they didn’t believe me,” she said. “But they did.”

Schneider considers herself a victim and survivor of childhood sexual abuse by clergy. She recently joined a group of victim/survivors and four Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who meet regularly to raise awareness of the clergy abuse issue.

The group includes two Sheboygan-area priests, the Rev. James Connell, pastor of St. Clement and Holy Name parishes, and the Rev. Richard Cerpich, who serves at the St. Peter Claver parish.

This week, the group made a public appeal asking victims and survivors of sexual abuse by a priest to file for restitution in federal bankruptcy court by the Feb. 1, 2012 deadline and to offer their help to people coming forward to make a claim against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

For the past year, Connell, 69, and the other priests have been talking with members of the Midwest chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the other survivors, and he said both sides have been able to build a level of trust.

“I don’t know just where it will go, but it’s going, headed to the idea that the truth needs to be known, so there can be justice,” Connell said. “And justice has to be based on the whole truth and healing and peace will only come about based on justice that is rooted in the whole and complete truth.”

Commitment to help

Connell remembers being in the pulpit in late 2010 when he made his own admission to his parish about his lack of effort to support abuse victims:

“There are people in pain, and suffering, and I need to be with them more,” Connell recalled telling his parishioners. “And I made a commitment then that I would stand publicly with the people.”

About three weeks after, Connell, who serves as a vice chancellor with the Milwaukee diocese, met with Peter Isely, the Midwest director of SNAP, following a press conference on the steps of St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Milwaukee to support victims of clergy abuse.

Connell recalled that Isely asked him if the two could just sit down and talk, with no agenda, and start working through ways to bring attention to the abuse by priests in the diocese. Connell said he knew of some priests who would join the conversation, and the meetings began.

“The conversations were very much frank and from the heart, which was extremely helpful, but at times could be uncomfortable,” Connell said.

Archdiocese aware of effort

Connell said the Milwaukee Archdiocese and Archbishop Jerome Listecki are aware of the priests’ effort to meet and speak with the victims.

“I have not had one flicker of problems with Archbishop Listecki,” Connell said. “We don’t see each other very often, but whenever we have it has been very cordial.”

Julie Wolf, communications director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, said it’s a good thing that Connell and the other priests are reaching out and meeting with victims.

“But it’s also important to note that priests throughout the archdiocese have been doing this for a very long time through their own ministries and their own parishes,” she said.

Wolf said that Listecki “has been very visible in reaching out to victims.”

Isely, 51, who was abused by a priest in the 1970s, said that Connell has embraced the plight of abuse victims and is sincere in wanting change.

“Here’s a man who’s a pastor and a vice chancellor of the archdiocese … and so I definitely consider Jim somebody who is a friend,” he said. “It’s not just the stance he’s taking; I just have developed a real warm regard for him and he’s somebody that stood with us and with me, shoulder to shoulder, and that’s a bond that becomes very strong over time.”

What’s ironic is that Isely and SNAP once had sought to have Connell thrown off the abuse review board of the Milwaukee archdiocese because they believed that in 1997, while reinvestigating the case of sexual assault of deaf students by the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, Connell failed to forward the results of the investigation to civil authorities.

Isely now believes that Connell did support making the records — which are sealed — public.

Connell, who is still on the review board, remembers SNAP accusing him of a cover-up in the Murphy case, but said, “I had nothing to do with (a) cover-up … my whole job was trying to get that guy out of the priesthood.”

Seeking a ‘new day’ for the church

This past week, the group took out a full-page advertisement in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to publicize the bankruptcy court’s upcoming deadline.

The advertisement also includes a pledge by the priests and members of the Midwest chapter of SNAP, to work together on maintaining a dialogue that they hope will lead to healing and hope for survivors, and a “new day for the church.”

The ad was written in tandem by the priests and the survivors, and took several weeks to compile.

“It was not an easy process,” Isely said, adding, “When you put something into writing, you’ve really got to think about what you’re saying.”

Sheboygan has had several clergy abuse cases over the years, most notably when the former Rev. William Effinger, who served at Holy Name Parish from 1979 to 1992, was arrested for abuse of young boys and eventually was sent to prison, where he died several years later.

Effinger was found to have had a pattern of abuse at assignments in Lake Geneva and Kenosha before arriving at Holy Name, but Connell said the parish was never told of his past behavior.

“If they knew about Effinger in Lake Geneva and Kenosha, how could they in good conscience send him here?” said Connell, who came to Holy Name and St. Clement years after Effinger was removed. “If he never had been sent here and had been treated as the criminal he was … then all this stuff in Sheboygan wouldn’t have occurred.”

Schneider, one of five victims to list their names on the advertisement, also attended the Milwaukee news conference. She hasn’t filed a claim against the archdiocese, and never took any action against the priest who abused her, saying she did not wish to go through the trauma of a trial.

She moved to Sheboygan in the early 1990s, about the time the Effinger case became public, and remembers thinking for the first time that clergy abuse could also happen to other people, not just herself.

“I never spoke about it to anybody in all those years, because it was my secret,” she said. “And then to discover that, ‘Wow, this happens to other people.'”

‘Fairly cautious’ approach

As a female victim of clergy abuse, Schneider believes it is important for her to be part of the group, even though she is “fairly cautious” about her participation.

“Anybody who has approached the church as a survivor each has their story of how they were either dismissed or they were caught in this machinery of not being listened to or not being believed or being deceived in some way,” Schneider said.

Schneider, who is not a member of SNAP, said that today she has a “very profound spiritual life,” and has hopes for the group’s success.

“I think what we’re doing is a good thing and it’s unique and I’m very proud to be part of that,” she said.

Connell said he is hearing from some abuse victims since the newspaper advertisement was published, and eventually would like to see the effort expand.

“If this can get out and around, maybe priests in other parts of the country will want to do the same thing with survivors — priests and survivors, sitting down, talking together, working together to find a way to do it right.”

 

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