After a week in which he was verbally pummeled with allegations that not enough was done for victims of clergy sexual abuse, Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba preached Sunday at St. John the Evangelist Church, then met privately with men who accuse the parish’s former pastor of sexual abuse.
“I apologize in the name of the church for those who were victims and look for a way we can acknowledge the truth and search for a new beginning,” Sklba told the congregation.
This community of 5,100 near the Illinois border is still deeply divided by the accusations that the late Father George Nuedling had abused young boys in his 46-year career as a priest.
Barbara Reinke, the leader of Project Benjamin, a group for victims of clergy sex abuse, has called Nuedling a “notorious abuser.”
Some still cannot reconcile all the good Nuedling did with the accusations that he molested young boys.
In his homily Sunday, Sklba pleaded with the community “to respect the voices of those who found the courage to speak out about sexual abuse,” and noted that such abuse had certainly occurred in Twin Lakes.
Last week, Sklba and Archbishop Timothy Dolan were members of a panel that met with victims of sexual abuse at the Midwest Express Center in downtown Milwaukee. The first, on Tuesday night, was open to the press. The second, on Saturday morning, was closed. Each session ran about two hours longer than planned and attracted hundreds of victims, family members and supporters.
Sklba agreed long ago to fill in for St. John’s current pastor, Michael Erwin, at the sessions.
Two brothers, John and James Gillespie, of suburban Chicago, spoke publicly for the first time Sunday about their allegations of being assaulted by Nuedling. The brothers attended the Milwaukee sessions as well as the meeting in Twin Lakes.
They met with a reporter after Sunday’s meeting with Sklba.
The men were young boys when they moved to Twin Lakes from Oak Park, Ill. Their parents were fleeing the urban disturbances that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr., settling in this rural resort community in search of safety for their children.
John Gillespie said three victims were at the meeting, and all felt that Sklba failed to directly address either the abuse or the divisions it has created in the community. The Gillespies said they were also unhappy that Sklba announced during the service that he intended to meet with victims in the church at 10:30 a.m., as it could be clear to observers who the victims are.
The younger brother, John, 45, said two boyhood friends walked by him in church Sunday and ignored him – something his wife said may have been prompted by him having stepped forward. He also said he feels Sklba violated his privacy by announcing the meeting during the service.
“I went out to get coffee and when I got back, people were sitting in their cars, craning their necks to see who was going to meet with the bishop,” John Gillespie said. “This is a small town.”
He said Sklba told them he was the vicar the priest in charge of clergy matters from 1985 until 1991. James Gillespie, 46, said Sklba told them he had confronted Nuedling in 1986 about older allegations that the priest had touched another boy’s buttocks. James said Sklba understood the incident to be inappropriate behavior but not sexual abuse, which he now understands it was. He also told them he was unsure about whether there were other earlier reported incidents, James Gillespie said.
He said Sklba agreed to write a more explicit letter about the abuse to the congregation and share it with the local press. He also said the brothers were told that they will be allowed to review a draft of the letter later this week.
The men also complained that Project Benjamin, the archdiocese’s response to sexual abuse, has become an agency that deals only with victims who come to the church, rather than an agency that goes into communities where abuse has occurred in an attempt to find victims.
“We said we’d like to see Project Benjamin establish a pilot program in Twin Lakes,” James Gillespie said. “We know there are other victims who have not come forward.”
Sklba spoke to a news reporter after Mass but before he met with the victims. He said he believes the healing process has begun but, in a sense, that it may never end.
“Nobody gets into heaven without scars,” he said. “But those scars can become luminary, as in the death and resurrection.”
He did not return phone calls Sunday night seeking comment.