Green Bay diocese calls sex abuse claim ‘preposterous’

By Corinthia McCoy Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers

GREEN BAY – Allegations that the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay intentionally allowed two boys to become sexual abuse victims are “utterly preposterous,” Deacon Tim Reilly said Friday.

Reilly, the diocesan director of administration, said the diocese plans to vigorously fight the accusation.

Reilly spoke to the media Friday in response to comments made by the plaintiffs in a fraud lawsuit, but did not discuss the suit.

The brothers, Todd and Troy Merryfield, filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday against the diocese claiming it knew that the then-overseeing priest, John Feeney, had a history of abusing children, yet had unsupervised access to the pair at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Freedom in the late 1970s.

The two, along with their attorney, Jeffrey Anderson, claimed the diocese has not taken responsibility for what happened in the past and remains in a “veil of secrecy,” without appearing to make an effort to stop sexual abuse.

Reilly said the statements are “balderdash.”

“I just felt that the statements that were made demanded some reaction, because if you just listen to what the statements were, it had nothing to do with the legal proceedings,” he said. “It will give people the impression that the Catholic Church has not moved at all as a result of the sexual abuse scandals, and that’s not the case. We have done a very, very vigorous job of ensuring that we have a safe environment for children and vulnerable adults.”

Both Merryfields, originally from Freedom, were 12 when Feeney molested them in 1978. Feeney, now 81, was sent to prison for 15 years in the 2002 criminal case. The two said they filed the suit Wednesday in Outagamie County Circuit Court asking for an unspecified amount because the diocese failed to protect others.

A July state Supreme Court decision provided lenient time limits to file lawsuits. The diocese has 45 days to respond.

Reilly said the diocese made provisions to its policies on appropriate conduct, which has received good reviews from an independent auditor, The Gavin Group, annually. An independent review board of former FBI agents reviews procedures every three months.

Anyone working with the diocese is required to undergo background checks, reviewing everything from traffic citations to felonies, and participate in a four-hour training on recognizing proper behavior and boundaries. All are tested on their understanding.

Reilly ensured that substantial allegations of sexual abuse are taken directly to authorities, and no current priests who are facing abuse allegations are in public priestly ministry. Five were removed after a task force reviewed personnel files of every priest since 1859.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has requested the diocese release the names and locations of 51 clergy allegedly known by church officials in Green Bay to have abused children.

Renae Bauer, assistant director of communications for the diocese, said those names are given to authorities, and the diocese leaves it to them to investigate and prosecute.

Peter Isely, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests’ Midwest director, said evidence obtained proves the diocese knew of the abuse and instead of dealing with it, transferred Feeney and covered up the evidence.

“We find it absolutely impossible to believe that if the DA (district attorney) was given the names of 51 clergy that have abused children … he would not have immediately launched a complete investigation, including a grand jury investigation, as to how these felony crimes were never reported to law enforcement and where these offenders are right now and who is supervising them so they can no longer harm another child in his law enforcement district,” he said in a written statement.

Isely said the organization is considering meeting with the district attorney’s office to find out what was done with the information.