Milwaukee priest cleared of sexual abuse allegation

by Marie Rohde

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Fr. Tom Eichenberger, a Milwaukee priest cleared of an allegation that he abused a boy 38 years ago, told NCR that he feels no joy, just relief, that he has been found innocent and returned to his parish on Monday.

"I have forgiven him because I know he is a troubled person, a convicted felon who spent time in prison," said Eichenberger. "I have forgiven him from my heart but it's been a nightmare. I've given 40 years to the church and one guy can ruin all of that."

Eichenberger was only the third priest removed from ministry and publicly named as an accused inmate as a result of allegations made in the bankruptcy that ended last week. Like Eichenberger, the other two were also acquitted of charges and returned to their ministry.

Archbishop Jerome Listecki announced the resolution of the investigation on Monday.

"I thank Father Eichenberger for his patient cooperation with this process," Listecki wrote in a prepared statement. "The investigation that is conducted is thorough and professional because I do not want any doubt remaining when a conclusion is reached."

The Milwaukee archdiocese was contacted for further information but did not respond.

Earlier in the bankruptcy proceeding, a lawyer representing many of the 575 who filed sex abuse claims as part of the bankruptcy said there were allegations against 100 others -- some diocesan priests, others members of religious orders or lay employees. Peter Isely, the Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said those named by the archdiocese -- as well as those not named -- present a curious pattern.

"To remove a priest and publicly name him as an accused abuser is an extremely serious matter," Isely said, adding that the Dallas Charter, the standard for dealing with abuses allegations in the U.S. Catholic dioceses, does not call for that.

"If someone is named, the complaint has to be incredibly reliable," Isely said. "There should be an initial investigation and confidence that the allegation is true. Why were only these three removed when there are more than a dozen complaints that have not been addressed?"

Now that the bankruptcy is over, there is no chance that those who have been accused will be investigated independently and named, Isely said.

An allegation made by an inmate does not make it false, but it does put it in a "different category," Isely said, who added that SNAP has had no contact with the accuser.

Eichenberger's accuser was a student at Holy Assumption Catholic Church, a parish school in a Milwaukee suburb. He said Eichenberger molested him in 1977, just a couple years after the priest was ordained.

The man did not name his abuser initially but by August 2015, he named Eichenberger.

Eichenberger said the principal of the school is still around and that certain facts the accuser relayed did not hold up under scrutiny.

"I had no idea who he was," Eichenberger said. "How was I supposed to prove I did not do something that happened 38 years ago?"

Eichenberger said the man has hurt the cause of true victims by making a false allegation. But was the archdiocese partly to blame for naming Eichenberger before the investigation was complete?

"I have no comment on that," said Eichenberger.

Last September, the day Eichenberger was named and removed from his parish, NCR contacted Kent Lovern, the chief deputy district attorney for Milwaukee County, who said his office was notified of the allegation but quickly determined that the case was outside the statute of limitations and "we had no basis to move forward."

The archdiocese then had an independent investigator – a man who once worked for the district attorney investigating sensitive crimes – conduct a separate inquiry. His findings were relayed to the Diocesan Review Board. A week ago, the board recommended Eichenberger be returned to his ministry.

Monday was Eichenberger's first day back in his parish he has served for 13 years. His feelings, he said, are a mingling of depression and exhilaration.

He said he spent the nearly three months of his suspension praying, reading and watching movies. "Some days I slept all day because I couldn't get out of bed. Even now I want to run away."

Eichenberger said he worries that people will not want him around their children, even though many of his parishioners and friends were overwhelmingly supportive with calls, emails, cards and letters.

"That's what got me through it," he said. "But I worry. How will I get my good name back?"

[Marie Rohde is a frequent NCR contributor from Milwaukee.]

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