MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser continues to offer an endless series of excuses about his failure to prosecute pedophile priest John Feeney in 1978, but all evidence assembled contradicts Prosser’s effort to rewrite his failed record in the high-profile case, according to an analysis by One Wisconsin Now.
“David Prosser continues to offer excuses and play the blame game, when the fact remains, he refused to prosecute a pedophile priest who then went on to abuse other children,” said Scot Ross, One Wisconsin Now Executive Director. “The fact is: at the time he should have been prosecuting this case, David Prosser was in the middle of a primary and general election campaign for the state Assembly. He needs to accept his responsibility and admit his political ambitions caused him to mishandle the case.”
Even after knowing the full extent of Feeney’s crimes, Prosser refuses to admit that he should have done anything differently: “I’m not uncomfortable with the decision made back then, even in 20/20 hindsight.” [Appleton Post-Crescent, 10/12/02]
An analysis and examination of Prosser’s excuses show his new claims ignore key facts and are mainly an effort to shift blame to others, instead of taking responsibility for his own actions (or lack of actions):
PROSSER EXCUSE #1
Prosser says he did not know about the extent of Feeney’s crimes at the time
No one has claimed Prosser knew about all of Feeney’s crimes, only that a mother told him about her two children being assaulted. What Prosser neglects to say is that in 1978 he had knowledge of a third victim of Feeney. While the third victim was refusing to testify in court, the knowledge that there were at least three victims of Feeney should have alerted Prosser to investigate more closely. In 2002 when the Outagamie County sheriff’s department did launch a full-scale investigation of Feeney, they systematically contacted people in the different communities where Feeney served and developed leads about possible victims and uncovered numerous victims. Those same investigative techniques could have been used in 1978 if Prosser had been committed to the case. As with most serial offenders, all of their crimes are usually not known at once, but it requires investigative work to uncover them. In this case, Prosser dropped the ball even though he was personally aware of three victims.
PROSSER EXCUSE #2
Prosser says the crimes weren’t severe enough to warrant prosecution, claiming falsely, that it was not first degree sexual assault.
Prosser is alarmingly trying to minimize the severity of the crimes. It is true that he did not know about the abuse in the confessional, as the victim did not disclose that until 2003, but the other charges did include first degree sexual assault. According to the 1979 police report: “Fr. Feeney then slipped his hand down and under his pajama bottom.” In 2004, Feeney was convicted of three counts of first degree sexual assault and one second degree. These charges included both the attack in the children’s bedroom, which Prosser knew about, as well the second assault in the confessional booth. The crimes could only be charged the same way that the laws were when the crime happened, so it must have been first degree sexual assault back in 1978 when the assaults occurred. This is part of a pattern of Prosser trying to downplay the seriousness of the crime.
Prosser irresponsibly repeated this false charge on Sunday’s “UpFront with Mike Gousha” television program
David Prosser: The critical piece of information that came out in the prosecution I think it was 26 years later was never told to me.
Mike Gousha: And that piece of information was? Prosser: Well, there really was a first degree sexual assault. I didn’t know about that. There was no first degree sexual assault that I ever heard about. [WISN-TV, 3/27/11, http://www.wisn.com/video/27332843/detail.html]
PROSSER EXCUSE #3
Prosser says he was not responsible for the Bishop’s actions
It is true that the Catholic Church withheld information from Prosser and other law enforcement officials about other accusations about Feeney. But just because they were more culpable, it doesn’t take away Prosser’s responsibility for his own actions. Prosser’s statements in the past three years make clear that his prime motivation was moving Feeney out of the parish. In 2008 Prosser said: “It was my demand that the priest would be removed from the parish, and if it wasn’t, if that didn’t happen, I would be forced to prosecute.” [WBAY-TV, 5/16/2008] Essentially he was using the threat of prosecution to force the Catholic Church into agreeing to move Feeney to another community. The 1978 letter from the Bishop also made it clear that Prosser was motivated by a desire to keep the case details quiet to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church, or at least that is what he told the Bishop: “in order to prevent unnecessary scandal, the DA [Prosser] came to see me merely to state that he was pursuing this case, gathering evidence toward prosecution of Father Feeney for a number of misdemeanors. I had to agree with the District Attorney that the Church would prefer to keep this out of court and out of the public eye and I was able to tell him of our decision last week [to move Feeney to a different parish] with which he agreed.” [Letter from Green Bay Bishop, December 18, 1978]
PROSSER EXCUSE #4
Prosser says the case against Feeney was weak
There is nothing that says District Attorneys can, or should, only prosecute cases with high chances of success. They are supposed to prosecute people they believe committed crimes. Maybe Prosser was concerned with his “winning percentage” because in 1978 he was running in a competitive Republican primary and general election for the state Assembly. Maybe he thought it would be bad politics to take on a Catholic priest, especially as a Protestant candidate. It is also clear from his statements at the time, Prosser wanted to avoid the publicity that a case against the brother of a Lawrence Welk television show singer star might attract. But, by not prosecuting the case, Prosser was guaranteeing Feeney would go free. Often times, it is the publicity of a case that convinces other victims to come forward. That is what happened in 2002 when Feeney was publicly identified as a pedophile. In 1978 Prosser’s decision to deal with him behind closed doors, kept Feeney’s identity, and his danger to the community, also secret.
PROSSER EXCUSE #5
Prosser says one of the victims supports him
It is true that in this hyper-divisive political environment, one of the victims has objected to an ad produced by the Greater Wisconsin Committee. However, just three years ago the victims and their mother were unequivocal in their criticisms of Prosser’s handling of the case:
It wasn’t just the Catholic Church that would not act against pedophile priests, it was law enforcement too, said Sharon Merryfield, who now lives in Texas. “Who else could we turn to? What else could we do? Nobody was on our side.” [Capital Times, 2/4/08]
“He (Prosser) knows damn well what happened and what was said,” said Troy Merryfield, one of the victims. “He dropped the ball” [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/6/08]
Troy Merryfield [said] other children could have been spared abuse. “It wasn’t as if sexual abuse of a child wasn’t a felony back then,” he said. “The laws were on the books, and he (Prosser) should have prosecuted.” [Associated Press, 2/5/08]
“Newly filed court records reveal an alleged 1978 agreement between a former Green Bay Catholic bishop and an Outagamie County prosecutor to keep allegations of a priest committing sexual assault a secret. The assault victims of former priest John Patrick Feeney now want an apology from that prosecutor — Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser.” [WBAY, 5/16/08]
PROSSER EXCUSE #6
Prosser says he did not prosecute the case because it was a one-time incident with no eyewitness
Prosser’s press release about the GWC ad states: “Lack of a corroborating eye witness, and what was then believed to be a one-time incident were key contributors to such a decision [not to prosecute].” Under that theory of prosecution, most cases of sexual assault would not be prosecuted as very few are witnessed by others and many occur only once. But, his statement is also factually wrong. The abuse happened twice once to each brother. Their testimony would have reinforced each other’s. Diminishing the seriousness of the crime by calling it a “one time incident” is also totally insensitive to the plight of victims. It is part of a pattern by Prosser’s supporters to try to minimize the abuse. One conservative columnist defending Prosser wrote it was a case about a priest “who tried touching two boys inappropriately.” [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 3/26/11] The police report plainly shows how wrong that characterization is: “Fr. Feeney then slipped his hand down and under his pajama bottom.” This was much more serious than an attempt to touch boys inappropriately, it was first degree felony sexual assault of a child, which is what Feeney was convicted of in this case in 2003, 25 years after Prosser refused to prosecute it.
“David Prosser’s excuses continue, but the debate on the facts is over,” said Ross. “David Prosser will latch onto any excuse to avoid taking any responsibility that he refused to act decisively when a mother reported to him that her sons had been sexually assaulted by a priest.”