Sunday, February 11, 2007

Church knew of abuse by priest

Marie Rohde reports in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Milwaukee Archdiocesan files on Father Siegfried Widera. The files were produced in the course of the recently settled cases in California, and were recently ordered ordered opened by a court there.
Just six years after his ordination, Widera was arrested in Port Washington for having sexual contact with an 11-year-old boy. He admitted to the crime and to similar conduct with several other boys but was charged with only one count of what was known as sexual perversion.

Widera went into therapy with Leo Graham, "a church-employed therapist". Graham apparently agreed that careful re-assignment could be considered. Widera went to St. Andrew's Church in Delavan.
The young priest was an immediate success. Several parishioners wrote to top church officials notes of praise for Widera, particularly noting his rapport with the children of the parish.

"The children in our school literally follow him around; he is so kind and shows so much interest in them," one letter-writer said.

There's interest and then there's interest.
On June 29, 1976, archdiocesan officials learned of new abuse accusations from an Elkhorn therapist who was treating a boy.

You can now see the process of rationalization and misrepresentation at work.
After a church official assured the therapist that Widera would receive inpatient treatment, the therapist persuaded the victim's mother not to go to the police.

After all, no point in getting the police involved if Father's getting the help he needs.
A July 7, 1976, entry in a vicar's log kept by the archdiocese says, however: "Leo (Graham) doubts value of inpatient treatment."

After all, no point in putting Father in a mental institution now that a therapist says it's not indicated.

But what about the agreement with the mother, that she would not report Widera to the police because our Archdiocese promised he would get inpatient treatment. I suppose it's like the architect's renderings in a church building fund drive; we commit to pay for it, but they reserve the right to decide to build something that looks different.
It also notes that "Graham feels that 'one slip' in 3 years is not too bad a track record."

That would add up to a priest molesting a dozen or so children over the course of his career. Even "three altar boys and you're out" would have been a stringent rule, by comparison. Even if the therapist, in fact, said this would be good progress by the patient, our Archdiocese acted as if that meant Widera had to be regarded as fit for continued service. Though not here; they said California was the place he ought to be.
Graham was upset that Widera was about to be moved without his input.

Indicating that if he made the "one slip" remark, it did not mean what our Archdiocese took it to mean.
In a letter to Bishop William Johnson, head of the Diocese of Orange (County in California), [Milwaukee Archbishop William] Cousins introduced Widera, asking that he be given a temporary assignment. Widera "has done good work," Cousins wrote. While Cousins acknowledged that there had been a "moral problem" involving a boy earlier and a "repetition" more recently, he wrote, "From all of the professional information I can gather there would seem to be no great risk in allowing this man to return to pastoral work, but there are legal complications at present."

The understatement in this letter was sufficient, I understand, that the California courts found it arguably intentionally misleading, and that this was the basis for our Archdiocese's potential liability in the California civil cases arising out of Widera's subsequent child molestations there. The settlement of those cases will be paid, in part, from sale of the Cousins Center, the former seminary complex and now Archdiocesan offices, built by and later named for Archbishop Cousins.

Update: SNAP has posted this Motion [27 pp. pdf] and Affidavit [333 pp. pdf] from California cases including those arising from claims of sexual abuse by Fr. Widera. I understand the exhibits to the affidavit are at least some of the documents the court recently ordered disclosed.


  1. What hypnotic force did Graham have over the (presumably) capable Bishops of this Archdiocese?

  2. Perhaps they were willing to be mesmerized when what they needed was to be Messmerized.