Former Franciscan Cleric Arrested for Multiple Child Sex Crimes in WI and MS – Time for Federal Justice Officials to Investigate

A former Franciscan brother whose sexual abuse of impoverished black children in Mississippi made national news last year has been arrested and charged in two states on multiple charges of child sex assault.  According to the AP, West was first charged in Appleton, Wisconsin last month and was extradited Wednesday to Mississippi where he faces additional charges. 

According to the criminal complaints and at least three of his victims, after sexually abusing them in Mississippi, West brought them to Wisconsin and New York state where he further assaulted them. Both West and his religious order, the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption, who are headquartered in Franklin, Wisconsin are also subject to a civil case filed in New York state. All the victims were students at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic grade school in the 1990’s, also known as a Catholic “mission school”, where West was principle when they were abused.

The arrest is particularly noteworthy for the disturbing evidence of racial bias in how the Franciscan Friars treated his victims when they reported him to church authorities. According to the AP, the current Provincial, Fr. James Gannon, not only required the victims to sign secrecy agreements in exchange for compensation – a clear violation of the US Bishops policy since 2002 – two of the victims were offered a paltry $15,000 each, far below the average compensation for non-black survivors. One victim was first offered $10,000 towards a used car. Gannon also appears to have deliberately misled victims as to the criminal statute of limitations, telling them that West could no longer be prosecuted for his crimes. During these conversations, none of the victims were represented by legal counsel.  

Although West was known by the Franciscans to be a child sex offender since the 1990’s, he was moved from Mississippi to Wisconsin. For 11 more years, he taught 5th graders at St. John Nepomucene Catholic School in Little Chute. No notifications of West's history were made to law enforcement, the Diocese of Green Bay, nor Wisconsin state education officials. 

We applaud law enforcement officials in Mississippi and Wisconsin for finally arresting West, especially Mississippi AG Lynn Fitch. Children are safer today because of their work. It is now time for Federal and state authorities to step in and fully investigate and prosecute those church officials who actively covered up West's crimes and deliberately misled victims in order to shield West and his religious order from criminal, civil and moral accountability. 

West has now been arrested in two states for child sex abuse, including transportation of victims across state lines for the purpose of sexually assaulting them. This is a clear violation of the Federal Mann Act and there are no reasons federal charges should not also be immediately filed. If the evidence warrants, any church official who knew of or aided West in the commission of his crimes should also face charges.

Similarly, Franciscan Provincial Fr. James Gannon and other church officials not only violated US Bishops policy in misleading victims to broker secrecy settlements to protect the church, thwart prosecution of offenders, and allow known offenders to gain further employment with children, they likely violated state and federal child abuse reporting laws, along with corporate US laws for non-profit organizations.  

Finally, there is significant evidence of racial bias in how these victims were treated and misled. Most notably, the glaringly disproportionate settlement offers between these survivors and non-black victims. How these settlements were negotiated and determined must be investigated for possible civil rights violations by the Franciscan corporate management.

We are grateful to the law enforcement and media professionals who helped investigate and bring attention to this miscarriage of justice. We especially honor these survivors and their courage in the face of racial and economic bias, compounded by the machinery of deception and indifference by church officials, that children are safer today.

CONTACT: Peter Isely, SNAP Wisconsin (peterisely@gmail.com, 414-429-7259), Mark Belenchia, SNAP Mississippi (msbelenchia@gmail.com, 601-953-2535), Zach Hiner, Executive Director (zhiner@snapnetwork.org, 517-974-9009)

(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)


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