|A WI priest who refused
to look the other way
By Lee Roberts - The Journal Times, Racine, WI
February 13, 2005
Amid what is described as a disturbing account of the events that
took place during the cover-up of a priest's sexual crimes is a
ray of light provided by a member of Racine's clergy, according
to Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of Those
Abused by Priests.
That light comes in the form of words spoken by the Rev. Paul Esser,
of St. Paul the Apostle Church, 6400 Spring St., back in the 1970s,
in regard to the sexual abuse case of the late Rev. Siegfried Widera.
Widera was a Wisconsin priest who was convicted of sexual misconduct
with a teenage boy in Wisconsin in 1973 and charged with 42 counts
of child molestation in Wisconsin and California when he died in
May 2003 after leaping from a hotel balcony in Mexico.
When the archdiocese was considering transferring Widera to a parish
in California following his conviction, Esser, who was serving on
the Milwaukee Archdiocese's Priests Personnel Board at the time,
spoke out in objection to the transfer.
Esser's comments appear to be the only objection noted during a
meeting of the Priest's Personnel Board that took place in 1976,
according to recently published documents from the archive of the
Archdiocese, Isely said. And he and others feel Esser should be
honored for his actions in trying to stop the transfer of the pedophile
Members of SNAP will be outside St. Paul the Apostle Church this
morning, following the 8:30 a.m. Mass, handing out leaflets urging
parishioners to ask Archbishop Dolan to honor Esser for his bravery.
"Father Esser's comments show his concern for children and
his courage. He wanted children to be safe from Father Widera and
he was brave enough to say so," said Mary Guentner, a Milwaukee
representative of SNAP.
SNAP would like people to help spread the word about what they
feel are Father Esser's exemplary actions by calling Dolan at (414)
769-3300 and urging him to hold a public event honoring Esser. The
organization would like to have a voice in planning that event,
and hopes it will encourage other clergy and lay people to follow
Esser's example by calling police, prosecutors, therapists and self-help
groups when they suspect child abuse has taken place or is taking
"If those who show bravery are recognized, perhaps more adults
- church employees, clerics, even parents - will find the courage
to report suspected sex crimes in the future," Guentner said.
Esser, who first heard of SNAP's proposal to honor him when called
by Saturday night by The Journal Times, said he would like to be
able to review the 29-year-old documents before commenting further
on the Widera case. He confirmed that he was on the Priests Personnel
Board at the time. While he doesn't recall the exact conversation
from the documented meeting, he certainly would have opposed the
transfer of anyone with a record of sexual abuse to another parish.
"I have always tried to stand up for what is right,"
Esser's 1976 comments were made public as the result of a lawsuit,
filed against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, by a
man who says he was abused by Widera in the 1970s after the priest
was transferred to a new parish without any warning of his past.
The lawsuit said the archdiocese transferred Widera from Port Washington
to the St. Andrew parish in Delavan in 1973 without warning anyone
of his conviction of sexual misconduct earlier that year. The archdiocese
later transferred Widera to California after he finished his three-year
probation for the offense.
"It appears Father Esser tried to stop that transfer,"
said Isely, himself a sex-abuse survivor. "And it is very important
to us that when someone within the senior management of the church
takes this kind of stand, he is recognized."
"We would also like to encourage people to thank Father Esser
in person and give him the credit he deserves," Guentner said.
"He is one of the few bright spots in a terribly sad and painful
crisis that, sadly, still looms over our church."
Founded in 1989, SNAP is the oldest and largest organization of
survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures, with more
than 5,000 members in 53 chapters. For more information about the
organization, including the documents with Father Esser's comments,
go to: http://www.snapnetwork.org
SNAP's Wisconsin branch can be reached by phone at (414) 429-7259.