By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
The watershed decision made it virtually impossible to sue a Wisconsin diocese for its conduct regarding an individual priest's actions -- one of the few ways in which abusers become publicly known and dioceses are held accountable. Victims may still sue individual priests, but rare is the lawyer who'll take a case against a defendant who has taken a vow of poverty.
"Burke has been effectively insulated from accountability," says St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson. "He was operating in a state where there were no effective legal remedies: You can't sue them."
Of course, abuse victims may seek criminal charges against a priest, but the allegations must be presented within the statute of limitations, which for sex crimes against minors in Wisconsin generally means taking action before the victim reaches age 35.
It was the statute of limitations that doomed a lawsuit Anderson brought against the Diocese of La Crosse in 1991. In that case, Jane Y. Doev. the Diocese of La Crosse, the plaintiff alleged that when she was fourteen years old she was sexually abused by Father Thomas Garthwaite, who was then pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Marshfield.
"[The] Diocese knew or should reasonably have known that Defendant Father Thomas Garthwaite suffered a serious significant psychiatric condition requiring professional treatment and was unfit for placement as a parish priest," reads Anderson's original complaint filed in La Crosse County Court. "Defendant Father Garthwaite regularly and repeatedly sexually abused the Plaintiff. The sexual abuse occurred, among other places, at the rectory and on the grounds of the Defendant Sacred Heart Church, and occurred during counseling sessions. Defendant Father Garthwaite repeatedly told the minor Plaintiff that she was a devil and was responsible for the sexual contact.... Father Garthwaite severely beat the Plaintiff."
Today at age 55, Doe is unflinching in her description of the alleged abuse. "Tom Garthwaite abused me in the confessional. We were having sex on the altar in the church. He was putting the host inside my vagina, and eating it out," she says during an interview at her home in central Wisconsin. "[Garthwaite] made me come to the confessional and tell him how sorry he was that I took a man of God and caused him to sin. Then he made me suck him off. He would hold my head to his penis -- to his belly -- and he would ejaculate in my mouth and say, 'Swallow it, bitch.' Then he would tell me that I didn't do enough penance and it was still my fault.
"Burke knew about all this stuff," Doe says. "In 1995 I told him about Tom."
When Doe's suit against the diocese was rejected by the court in the early 1990s, Burke was working in Rome. But Doe says she was the first alleged victim of clergy abuse to meet with him after he became bishop in 1995.
The alleged abuse left lasting scars on Doe's psyche; her psychotherapist, Daniel Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota, diagnosed her with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But Carlson would later note in an unrelated correspondence, "I have always found her to be a reliable and believable witness to her own past trauma."
Nonetheless, soon after Doe's first meeting with the bishop, Burke received an alternative analysis for Doe's condition. "For the last six months, [Jane Doe] has shown symptoms that I cannot explain on a purely psychological basis," wrote Medford, Wisconsin, psychologist Joseph F. Roe in a letter to Burke dated September 3, 1996, which was supplied to Riverfront Times in a bundle of documents and correspondence. "This patient needs someone to assess whether or not she requires deliverance prayers." In a follow-up letter dated April 15, 1997, Roe again appeals to the bishop: "I would like to be able to refer her to someone who would be qualified to discern whether or not she is possessed."
Burke declines to comment about the case. But judging from his letters, it appears he obliged Roe's request. In a letter dated June 17, 1998, Burke writes to Gerry Peterson of Family & Children's Service, a private nonprofit agency in Minneapolis: "Before granting the permission for an exorcism, according to the proven practice of the Church, I require a competent psychiatric or psychological determination of the person's condition. For that purpose, Ms. [Doe] has been referred to you. When your psychological assessment has been completed, I ask that you provide me with the pertinent records and conclusion, so that I may make a determination regarding a possible exorcism. I am certain she will sign a release to permit this disclosure. Enclosed is payment in full for the above required treatment."
Apparently there was a misunderstanding. Peterson was in fact running group-therapy sessions for victims of clergy sexual abuse, and when Burke discovered the therapist was not examining her patients for demonic possession, the bishop balked. In a letter dated July 27, 1998, Burke writes to Peterson: "It was my understanding that [Jane Doe] was seeing you for purposes of conducting a psychological assessment related to potential demonic possession. I was not aware that you would not be providing those services.... I don't recall agreeing to pay for group therapy.... I do intend to obtain a psychological assessment for Ms. [Doe] in the above mentioned sense. However, if that is not possible through you or your agency, then I would kindly ask you to return the payment made so that it can be assigned for the purposes it was intended."