9:08 PM, Oct 27, 2012
Written by Janet Ortegon
Adam Sprenger’s parents suspected for years that something horrible had happened to their son.
It took 10 years and a random piece of mail — a mysterious credit card bill for an astronomical amount of money — for the truth to come out.
And the truth was nightmarish: When he was about 12, Adam was assaulted by his priest.
Adam, who is now 36 and living in Minnesota, agreed to let his parents tell the family’s story. Though he’s put the trauma behind him, the Sprenger family hopes that telling Adam’s story will encourage other victims to come forward.
The Rev. Bill Effinger, pastor of Holy Name Parish from 1972 to 1992, took Adam under his wing in 1987 to help the boy consider a possible future in the priesthood. After two overnight trips, Adam stopped talking about wanting to be a priest.
What the Sprengers, of Sheboygan, didn’t know when they encouraged those visits was that Effinger had abused children in Lake Geneva and Kenosha before being assigned here.
In 1993, Effinger was convicted in Sheboygan County of second-degree sexual assault for harming another child, and after that, nine other past victims came forward.
And although it’s clear now that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee knew about Effinger’s actions before sending him to Sheboygan, the Sprengers don’t fault the church for what happened.
“It’s Effinger’s fault,” Jerry Sprenger said. “We’ve never knocked the church. Where would I go? I’m a Catholic. I believe in this church and what happened to us happened to us. There’s been a lot of priests that have helped us and been very good to us.”
That includes the Rev. James Connell, pastor at Holy Name and St. Clement Catholic parishes, who has worked with the Sprengers and helped them share their story in the hopes that other people who have been hurt will come forward.
“This town’s got to have just a number of people who are hurt by this,” Connell said. “Are they getting help? Where are they? What are they doing?”
When the Sprengers got that credit card bill in 1997, it seemed like an obvious cry for help after 10 years of denying that Effinger had hurt him.
“Instead of yelling at him, I just looked at him: ‘Adam, answer me yes or no: Did Effinger abuse you?’” Jerry Sprenger recalled. “And he said yes. And his eyes, the water came out like you wouldn’t believe. It was horrible.”
Once the truth came out, the Sprenger family went to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for help, and help is what they got, including financial assistance and the offer of counseling.
It took five more years, however, for Adam to be ready to accept that kind of help. And he went through more trauma, drug abuse and self-destructive behavior to get there.
In the end it took a rare act of courage on the part of his parents to get him on the right track. In 2002, the Sprengers knew their son was on a downward spiral and called the police to arrest him for drug use.
He ended up committing himself for treatment, and the archdiocese arranged for long-term rehabilitation for Adam as well as assistance for the family.
After Adam had been through his rehabilitation, completed school and started a new life in Minneapolis in radio production, Connell invited him to come back to Sheboygan to talk to parishioners about his life.
While in town, Adam bumped into an old friend and told him about the speech he was going to give. That’s when the friend disclosed that he, too, had been abused by Effinger and had never told anyone.
That story became Adam’s topic the next day, and it guides the Sprengers’ actions still.
“We want it to be known that this is why we’re doing it,” Jerry Sprenger said. “These people need love, they need people to love them and care for them. Without that, our son would not be where he’s at today.”
Deacon Bernard Nojadera, executive director of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection for the USCCB in Washington D.C., said it takes the actions of everyone, including those in the Sprengers’ position, to create the change the church needs.
“The idea of looking for the sliver of grace … we’re seeing the dark side, the evil of humanity with this,” Nojadera said. “In all cases what we have here is the church’s way of trying to make a wrong right”
Despite the horror of what their son endured and the years of heartache that followed, the Sprengers consider themselves blessed.
“He was a kind, decent, polite young man and all of a sudden he became this terrible person just overnight,” Jerry Sprenger said. “You’ll never forget, but if you don’t get over it, it’s just going to eat you up. It’s going to kill you.”
The Sprengers have told their story to many people over the years. And although they’ve received some very hurtful comments in return, most people are supportive.
“I always talk about it to people, especially people that I trust,” said Barbara Sprenger, 68. “They listen and they try to help me not to be guilty about it. It helps me. The church is continually there for us.”
Jerry Sprenger said that when he visited his son at Christmas a couple of years ago, he had a private moment with him.
“I told him I was so proud of him of what he has done, what he’s made out of his life and what a wonderful son that he is and he said to me, ‘You know, there comes a time you’ve got to stop making excuses for what happened to you and you’ve got to get on with life,’” he said. “He’s got a lot of guts, he really does.”
— Reach Janet Ortegon at 920-453-5121