9:18 PM, May. 15, 2012
APPLETON — Several priests who served in the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay during Rev. John Feeney’s tenure testified Tuesday that allegations of sexual misconduct followed Feeney in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Troy and Todd Merryfield, two brothers who were sexually assaulted by Feeney in 1978 and are suing the diocese, called the priests as their first witnesses in the two-week trial at Outagamie County Court in Appleton.
The brothers filed the 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.
Troy’s attorney, John Peterson, said evidence shows Feeney was a “known risk” to children when Wycislo placed Feeney at St. Nicholas Parish.
But the diocese’s attorney, Patrick Brennan, said risk is not enough. He said the Merryfields must prove the bishop knew Feeney was molesting others before their assaults occurred and fraudulently covered it up — and there isn’t evidence to back up that “outlandish claim.”
“There was no evidence of sexual molestation and danger to children,” Brennan said.
“If he (was a known child molester), anyone with good sense would take action,” Brennan said, and Wycislo, who was responsible for ensuring priests were fit to serve, was a “good and conscientious man.”
The Merryfields, now adults, watched in the courtroom as their attorneys projected pictures of them as boys for the jury — images of the brothers from around the time Feeney molested them. The boys lived in Freedom and attended St. Nicholas Parish, where Feeney was the pastor. In 1978, when Troy was 12 and Todd 14, Feeney sexually assaulted them in their homes.
Feeney, 85, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2004 after he was convicted of four counts of child sexual assault of the Merryfields. Feeney was released from prison in November 2011 after serving eight years and now lives in Missouri, according to the U.S. Department of Justice sex offender registry.
The brothers didn’t know about the prior abuses until after the criminal trial, the lawsuit states. Now they want the Green Bay diocese held accountable for fraud charges, and Jeffrey Anderson, an attorney for Todd Merryfield, asked for $900,000 in damages Tuesday.
Troy Merryfield lives in Suffolk, Va., and works for NASA. Todd owns a business and lives in Port Washington. They both have families and while on the outside they appear to have made it through the trauma unscathed, they will suffer lifelong harm from Feeney’s abuse, Peterson said. Todd has “compartmentalized” his anguish and Troy suffers from anxiety and depression, he said.
On Tuesday, the Merryfields’ attorneys zeroed in on diocese documents and allegations of sexual misconduct before 1978. During the 26 years Feeney served as a priest for the Green Bay diocese, he was assigned to 18 parishes.
The Rev. Robert Vandenberg, who lived with Feeney in the priests’ quarters at St. Therese’s in Appleton where Feeney worked from 1961 to 1963, testified he heard allegations that Feeney swam nude with boys, and showered with them after sports — “towel snapping” them in the locker room.
When Feeney was working in Appleton — 15 years before the Merryfield molestation — people were questioning his prudence in sexual involvement with children, Vandenberg said.
But it was a different time and there was a lot of gray area when it came to Feeney’s actions, Vandenberg said. When Vandenberg was in the Navy, they always swam naked, he said, and Feeney was a sports nut who coached youth athletics.
“It didn’t touch me as a serious sexual matter,” Vandenberg said of the rumors.
Monsignor Paul Koszarek said he heard similar rumors when he was appointed vicar, from 1972 to 1975. As vicar, Koszarek oversaw Feeney, among other priests.
Feeney was attending mental health sessions in 1974 partly because he inappropriately touched two teenage girls at a church retreat, the Rev. Lawrence Canavera testified. The incident was reported in the priest personnel board’s January 1974 minutes.
That year, Feeney forwarded a letter to the bishop summarizing his recent mental health sessions with Dr. Thomas Kelley.
“Our evaluation conclusion is that under stress, your usual controls over sexual impulses may fail and cause some indiscretions in this aspect of your functioning. Our data would suggest some arrestation in the psychosexual development not altogether uncommon in persons reared in rigid sexually inhibiting environments,” Kelley wrote.
“I was sorry to learn that you have received more complaints about me,” Feeney wrote in a note to the Bishop, accompanying the letter. “I can only say that I am certain I have not given any cause for this since our last conversation in May.”
In the early 1970s, when the priest personnel board and bishop learned of Feeney’s misconduct, things were different, Canavera said.
“Words like pedophilia were not used. We were not, the awareness was not there. Looking back, I’ll share some personal responsibility. But I think we were ignorant,” he said.