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‘I was such a little kid’: As Wisconsin Catholic clergy accused of sexual abuse grows, the trauma lingers

In the past year, some dioceses and religious orders have for the first time listed their accused clergy. At others, the decades of silence continues.

Kathryn Walczyk at 5
This is how Kathryn Walczyk of Green Bay, Wisconsin, looked around 5 years of age, a few years before she says a priest from her Catholic parish sexually abused her.
Courtesy of Kathryn Walczyk

When she was 7, Patty Gallagher was chosen to bring the priest who served her parish and school in Monona, Wisconsin, his daily milk.

The Rev. Lawrence Trainor was practically a member of the family. He came over for dinner and visited the family cottage. Trainor, a priest at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, ingratiated himself with her parents. And then, Gallagher said, he “raped me in every way possible.”

“I had to make my first confession with this man and say the words, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,’ to the man who raped me in the most horrific ways,” said Gallagher, of Milwaukee, whose last name is now Gallagher Marchant.

Gallagher Marchant, a psychotherapist, said she repressed these traumatic memories for decades.

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When Gallagher Marchant was 35 and her daughter turned 7 — the same age she was in 1965 at the time of her own abuse — the memories flooded back.

She notified the Catholic Diocese of Madison in 1991, eventually receiving a “six-figure” settlement in 1992. Ever since, Gallagher Marchant has been speaking out “because I can’t not talk about what’s so blatantly wrong.”

Many U.S. institutions have been rocked by sexual abuse scandals in recent years, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Boy Scouts of America and USA Gymnastics.

But it is the scandal within the Catholic Church that continues to garner the most attention, prompting Pope Francis in May to issue the first worldwide mandate that all child sex abuse allegations be reported to church authorities — a measure that critics say still falls short.

“Abuse can happen everywhere and it does,” said Brent King, communications director for the Diocese of Madison. “The scandal in the church is different because these men were supposed to represent God and his church.”

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Thousands of allegations across U.S.

More than 11,000 accusations of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests and brothers have been made across the United States since the 1970s, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit that conducts social science research on the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has paid tens of millions of dollars in settlements in Wisconsin, including an estimated $21 million from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to compensate 330 sexual assault survivors.

In Wisconsin, the number of credibly accused priests reported by dioceses, religious orders and law firms now stands at roughly 170, a Wisconsin Watch investigation shows. And it could rise.

Wisconsin Watch found wide variations in the approach of Wisconsin’s five dioceses and dozens of religious orders to publicly report alleged abuse. Critics say the Catholic Church must do a better job of reaching out to survivors to help them heal. A survivors’ group is pushing for independent investigations, including criminal probes, to root out allegations of abuse.

So far, three Wisconsin dioceses have publicly reported the names of 104 priests with substantiated or verified allegations: 48 from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 48 from the Green Bay Diocese and eight from the Madison Diocese.

The dioceses covering Superior and La Crosse have yet to release their own clergy disclosure lists, although lists several priests in each diocese who have been convicted or were the subject of settlements. The diocese spokesperson for Superior did not respond to several messages seeking information.

Alongside the 779 diocesan priests currently serving in Wisconsin, there are another 452 priests from religious orders including the Franciscans, Jesuits and Norbertines. Religious order priests report to different authorities than diocesan priests do. And they vary widely in revealing sexual abuse within their ranks.

In July, the De Pere, Wisconsin-based Norbertines released a list of 22 priests — 20 of whom have been credibly accused of sexual abuse in Wisconsin since the 1960s.

Religious order priests are not under the umbrella of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in the wake of the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose of widespread abuse and coverups within the church.

These religious orders are overseen by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which has also adopted the tenets of the charter, according to the organization’s communications director, Susan Gibbs.

The charter mandates training for religious and lay employees on how to avoid and spot sexual abuse, transparency in communicating with alleged victims and the public, mandatory reporting of child abuse allegations to law enforcement and other policies.

SNAP: Church must do more

Despite these efforts, parishioners continue to come forward with fresh accusations, priests are facing criminal charges in state courts, and critics are calling for more action.

Zach Hiner, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he appreciates the steps the church has taken, but more needs to be done.

Hiner wants to see secular investigations into church personnel files, release of names of all credibly accused clergy and recognition of and discussion by the church, the public and elected officials about sexual abuse.

The scandal shows no signs of abating.

After the Green Bay Diocese posted a list of 46 accused priests in January, at least a dozen new reports of sexual abuse poured in dating back decades. In May, the diocese boosted the number of alleged priest abusers to 48.

Criminal cases continue

Criminal charges continue to be filed against Wisconsin priests for alleged sexual assault of children, sometimes decades earlier.

One is former priest Thomas E. Ericksen. He served at St. Peter Church in Winter, Wisconsin, in the 1980s. He was first investigated in 1983, but police handed his case back to the Diocese of Superior.

In 1988, Ericksen was removed from the priesthood. According to the Wausau Daily Herald, the diocese paid a $3 million out-of-court settlement to two of Ericksen’s victims from Winter. Ericksen later confessed to “fondling” boys to a news reporter and to police. He was charged in four separate cases in Sawyer County Circuit Court in 2018 and 2019.

One case involved a man who said he was abused in 1982 as a 14-year-old altar boy. After the cases were consolidated and two dismissed, Ericksen was sentenced to 30 years in prison on Sept. 26.

Not all cases result in convictions. In September, a Jefferson County jury acquitted the Rev. William A. Nolan, a priest from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Atkinson, of accusations that he had sexually assaulted a boy, now 27, between 2006 and 2010.

Investigations launched

In Wisconsin, all five dioceses have launched investigations to determine which personnel have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. Milwaukee was the first to release a list of priests accused of abuse in 2004. The other four in the state have been slow to follow.

Hiner said his concern with church-funded investigations is that companies hired to review files do not necessarily have to report their findings to law enforcement.

“As we’ve seen at places like Michigan State University, institutions cannot police themselves,” Hiner said, referring to the scandal in which USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was found to have molested hundreds of athletes.

King, the Madison Diocese spokesman, said the company investigating Madison’s files sees it as a “moral obligation” to report criminal activity.

Advocates like SNAP want state attorneys general to investigate abuse, as Pennsylvania’s attorney general did in 2018. Rebecca Ballweg, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, said the office would not comment on whether it is investigating such allegations here.

‘I was such a little kid’

Kathryn Walczyk said her abuse occurred at the hands of a priest from St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere. She chose not to disclose her abuser’s name; the now-deceased man is on the list of accused Norbertine clergy.

Like Gallagher Marchant, Walczyk’s abuse began around the age of 7 as she prepared for First Communion at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Green Bay, where she still lives.

One of the times, Walczyk and a friend went into a room where the priest dresses before Mass. He grabbed her, pulling her under his robe; she felt his naked body against her mouth.

“I just remember the smell and that I was being suffocated. I thought I was going to die,” Walczyk said, choking back tears. “I was such a little kid, I didn’t know.”

Memories of her abuse did not surface until she was in her mid-40s, she said, when they emerged like a “tornado.”

Kathryn Walczyk: “I woke up to this trauma in my mid-40s … and it felt like an inner tornado going on.”
Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch
Kathryn Walczyk: “I woke up to this trauma in my mid-40s … and it felt like an inner tornado going on.”
“I had pictures of the side of the priest’s head … I had pictures of his yellow-stained hands, I had pictures of sacred objects in the church, but I didn’t have the movie.”

Walczyk, 58, now works as a spiritual companion, helping others on their paths to spirituality.

Walczyk said the Catholic Church should work toward “authentic transformation” by admitting it needs outside help to heal and repair the damage it has done.

From ‘leper’ to activist

Gallagher Marchant said when she reported her abuse in 1991, she was treated like a “leper” as the church immediately lawyered up.

“They said, ‘What do you want, a 1-800-clergy abuse line?’ They were very flip,” Gallagher Marchant said.

She eventually received a monetary settlement — Gallagher Marchant declined to discuss the exact size — and meetings with Trainor, the bishop and auxiliary bishop.

Years later, offices, hotlines and services like she proposed were set up by dioceses nationwide. But she said the church as a whole still has not fully atoned for the pain it caused by “not tending to the issue of clergy pedophilia in a timely and transparent manner.”

Finally in July, Gallagher Marchant got the heartfelt apology she always wanted during a meeting with Madison’s newly installed Bishop Donald Hying.

“I’m still sitting and basking in relief and peace that I never thought I’d have,” Gallagher Marchant said just after the meeting. “It really matters to be heard, heart to heart.”

Hying said in the past, some bishops relied on the advice of lawyers on how to address survivors.

“And so the initial response became sort of this legal response, when in fact, I think what victims were really looking for — are looking for — is a pastoral response. A human response,” Hying said.

Erica Jones’ work on this story was sponsored by the Ann Devroy Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Bram Sable-Smith from Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch reporter Francisco Velazquez contributed to this story. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.