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Local Journalist Reflects on Milwaukee's Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal

Dave Gilbert

The nationwide sexual abuse scandal involving Catholic priests has gotten increased scrutiny in recent days with the release of a new movie about the investigation.  “Spotlight” dramatizes the effort by the Boston Globe newspaper to bring abuses by priests in the Boston archdiocese to light.

It’s a scandal that also involved priests in Milwaukee.  Reporter Marie Rohde’s work stretches back to 1980s, when she covered religion for the Milwaukee Journal.  More than a quarter-century later, Rohde still writes about the issue as a freelancer, often for the independent National Catholic Reporter. 

Rohde says the first time she heard about sexual abuse committed by a priest was in the mid 1980's when a Louisiana priest was accused of abusing many boys for decades.

"My response was, 'thank goodness it's not here,'" she says.

However, within a few years, a priest in a Milwaukee northeast parish was accused by a victim of sexual abuse. At the time the allegations were not widely accepted by the community and the matter proceeded into a civil lawsuit and later, an out-of-court settlement.

But soon after, the case of Fr. William Effinger would be the first to make big headlines in Milwaukee. Effinger served at a number of parishes in Milwaukee and had been a serial abuser, with more than 150 child victims. It was discovered that the Milwaukee archdiocese knew about the abuse, but did doing nothing to warn potential victims or their families. Instead, like many abusive priests, Effinger was transferred around the city.

Rohde broke her first major article on December 20, 1992 after gathering information and working with victims of clergy sexual abuse who knew of more abusive priests and more victims than previously discovered.

"I got tons of calls and letters, and some of them were not nice - some were frankly threatening," says Rohde. "But for the most part I was interested in the people who said, 'This happened to me.'"

From the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, lawsuits were filed against the church in relation to abuse. But a state Supreme Court decision made in 1995 ruled that the church could not be sued for negligence by victims of sexual abuse. This decision dismissed many lawsuits and stopped any new suits from being filed with the court.

It wasn't until 2007 that the state court ruled that the church could be sued for fraud if church leaders were aware of abusive priests but failed to act to protect victims.

From that point forward, over 500 claims of abuse have been filed in court. During this time Rohde has covered developments, including the Milwaukee archdiocese's bankruptcy filing, the movement of money to a cemetery maintenance fund, and the smallest settlement dispersed to over 300 victims, in comparison to other national cases.

Having practiced Catholicism at the start of her career as a religion reporter, Rodhe says she is no longer a Catholic.

"It's a harder story to cover because it hits people where they live," she says. "Not just for the people who have been abused, but also it hits people in the pews."

Throughout her coverage of the Milwaukee clergy sex abuse, both as a writer for the Journal and now as a freelance reporter, Rohde still doesn't know the answer to the many questions left by the scandal and the bankruptcy.

"The abuse was horrible," says Rodhe. "But what was even more horrible, and that has never been addressed, was (the church's) role in it. And until that can happen it's not going to end."

Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski with freelance writer Marie Rohde (extended interview)

Marie Rohde has covered religion and the scandal within the Milwaukee archdiocese for more than a quarter century, first with the Milwaukee Journal, and currently as a freelance writer. Her articles more recently have appeared in the National Catholic Reporter and other publications.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.