1:51 PM, May. 16, 2012
Post-Crescent staff writer
APPLETON — A Port Washington man testified Wednesday that a sense of failure accompanied his long-held secret of being molested in 1978 at the hands of a priest.
“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.”
Merryfield, 48, opened the second day of testimony in an Outagamie County civil trial alleging fraud by the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay. Merryfield and his brother, Troy Merryfield, are suing the diocese for unspecified compensation, claiming the diocese knew priest John Feeney sexually assaulted other children prior to 1978 and misrepresented his safety around children.
The diocese denies the allegations.
Feeney was sentenced to prison in 2004 for sexual assaulting both brothers. They were 12 and 14 when the assaults occurred.
On the witness stand, Todd Merryfield reluctantly described how Feeney inappropriately touched him during an evening visit to their home in May 1978. It was a school night and both boys were in bed when Feeney arrived.
His mother, Sharon Merryfield, testified that Feeney told them he wanted to hear the boys offer their prayers.
Todd Merryfield said his brother came into his bedroom that night after Feeney left and asked whether anything happened. He responded that nothing had occurred.
Merryfield said he didn’t tell anyone of the assault until 2002, when a police officer called as part of a criminal investigation into Feeney.
The years in between were marked with feelings of burden.
“Every day you had to make a conscious decision to keep it buried away,” he 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.
Their ability to communicate began to change after that conversation, he said. They later divorced.
Todd Merryfield 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.”
Sharon Merryfield briefly testified after her son left the witness stand and 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.
The assault shook Todd Merryfield’s faith.
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.
Merryfield said he still believes in God. He 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.
Todd Merryfield said the church was important to the family. He mentioned how his uncle regularly told him he’d be a priest someday.
He said held trust for members of the clergy.
“They’re god’s hand on Earth,” Todd Merryfield said. “Who else are you going to trust?”
— Jim Collar: 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or firstname.lastname@example.org