Priest sex assault victims say their faith was shaken

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From left, Todd and Troy Merryfield, two brothers who were sexually assaulted by Catholic Diocese of Green Bay Rev. John Feeney, listen to testimony at the Outagamie County Justice Center in Appleton on Wednesday. The brothers filed a lawsuit in 2008, claiming the diocese and Bishop Aloysius Wycislo — who was bishop from 1968 to 1983 and is deceased — fraudulently kept parishioners in the dark about Feeney’s history of sexual molestation that led to the boys’ abuse.

From left, Todd and Troy Merryfield, two brothers who were sexually assaulted by Catholic Diocese of Green Bay Rev. John Feeney, listen to testimony at the Outagamie County Justice Center in Appleton on Wednesday. The brothers filed a lawsuit in 2008, claiming the diocese and Bishop Aloysius Wycislo — who was bishop from 1968 to 1983 and is deceased — fraudulently kept parishioners in the dark about Feeney’s history of sexual molestation that led to the boys’ abuse. / Wm. Glasheen/Gannett Wisconsin Media

Attorney John Peterson consoles Troy Merryfield after emotional testimony Wednesday at the Outagamie County Justice Center in Appleton. Merryfield and his brother, Todd, were sexually assaulted by priest John Feeney and have filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, claiming the diocese and Bishop Aloysius Wycislo kept parishioners in the dark about Feeney’s history of sexual molestation.

Attorney John Peterson consoles Troy Merryfield after emotional testimony Wednesday at the Outagamie County Justice Center in Appleton. Merryfield and his brother, Todd, were sexually assaulted by priest John Feeney and have filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, claiming the diocese and Bishop Aloysius Wycislo kept parishioners in the dark about Feeney’s history of sexual molestation. / Wm. Glasheen/The Post-Crescent

APPLETON — When the jury was dismissed for a short break Wednesday, Troy Merryfield remained in the witness stand at Outagamie County Court, his head in his hands. His wife went to him and he leaned his head against her as they prayed.

Merryfield had just told jurors that when Rev. John Feeney — whom he was taught to see as “God’s representative” — molested him at age 12, it shattered his belief in Catholicism and tore apart his family.

His faith in God is strong now, but for years he avoided church. He is no longer a Catholic.

Troy Merryfield and his brother, Todd, were sexually assaulted by Feeney in 1978 and are suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Green Bay for misrepresenting Feeney as safe while knowing he was a danger to children. The diocese denies the allegations.

When Feeney stepped inside the Merryfield house decades ago and offered to help the boys with their evening prayers, he entered a devout Catholic home. The Merryfields were altar boys and taught to revere priests. The family attended almost every church event, Troy said.

When Feeney departed the Merryfield home later that night in May 1978 — after visiting the rooms of Todd, 14, and Troy, 12, and touching them under their pajamas — he left behind a trauma that tore the brothers apart.

When Troy went into his brother’s bedroom that night after Feeney left and asked whether anything happened, Todd had a “deer in the headlights” look and responded that nothing had occurred, Troy said.

“We’ve had lots of fights about this. (Todd has) denied it and denied it up until he couldn’t deny it anymore. I insisted something happened to him and he insisted it didn’t,” Troy said. “It would turn into a shouting match.”

The boys had opposite reactions to the molestation — Todd “determined that it was not going to be an issue that his parents were going to be able to very effectively pursue or talk with him about,” and used “repression and denial” to cope, testified Dr. Michael Galli, a psychologist who evaluated the brothers.

Meanwhile, Troy was outraged and wanted people to know what the priest did. When his family didn’t handle the situation the way he wanted, he couldn’t let that go and it became a “regularly recurring theme” that damaged his relationship with his family and the Catholic Church, Galli said.

Todd, 48, now lives in Port Washington. He testified Wednesday that a sense of failure accompanied his long-held secret.

“I didn’t protect my brother,” Todd Merryfield told a jury as he fought back tears. “I’m the oldest brother. That’s my job and I failed.”

He didn’t tell anyone of the assault until 2002, when a police officer called as part of a criminal investigation into Feeney. In 2004, Feeney was sentenced to prison for sexual assault of the Merryfields.

The years in between were marked with feelings of burden.

“Every day you had to make a conscious decision to keep it buried away,” Todd said. “This is something so traumatic, it could drive my life and I didn’t want to disappoint the people around me.”

Breaking the silence took a toll, he told the jury.

After talking to the officer, Todd Merryfield finally told his wife. She couldn’t believe her husband kept something so important from her and for so long, Merryfield testified.

“You could see the disappointment on her face,” he said.

They later divorced.

Todd testified about finally revealing his secret to his three children. He didn’t want to have that talk, but thought it would be better to hear what happened from their father rather than from news reports.

“You get humbled real fast, telling your kids something like that,” he said. “It was the most humbling experience I ever had.”

Troy told his wife about the molestation in 1988, the year before they were married. He’s told his 7- and 11-year-old daughters about the lawsuit and why he’s traveling from their home in Suffolk, Va., to visit Wisconsin. Troy also explained “good touch, bad touch” to the girls.

“I’m not going to let them have it happen to them to the best of my ability,” he said.

Before moving to Virginia in 1999, where he works for NASA, Troy tried to work at the family business — the Learning Shop in Appleton. But there was friction in the family.

At one point, his mother pulled him into conference room and said, “You are either going to a psychologist to get help or you are out. You are too angry,” Troy testified.

He has been going to therapy for years to get help with the depression and anxiety that from the molestation, Troy said.

His mother, Sharon Merryfield, who briefly testified after Todd left the witness stand Wednesday morning, was questioned about the important role the Catholic church played in her family’s life. She said she considered it an honor when Feeney made the surprise visit to their home in 1978.

Todd Merryfield said he continued to attend Catholic church until 2002 after his secret became public. He had raised his children as Catholics to that point and left it to each of them to choose whether to remain in the church. They also fell away.

Both Merryfields still believe in God. Troy returned to religion after attending a nondenominational Christian church when he lived in Appleton.

Todd said he goes to church for events such as weddings or funerals. In those cases, it’s a matter respect for others.

“As far as attending a service of my own volition? I will not do that,” he said.

— Jessie Van Berkel: 920-993-1000, ext. 426, or jvanberkel@postcrescent.com; on Twitter @jessvanb; Jim Collar: 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or jcollar@postcrescent.com

1 Response to Priest sex assault victims say their faith was shaken

  1. Sylvia says:

    I am sure many of you victims can relate to one or the other of these two brothers. 

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