MILWAUKEE — When a group of clergy sex-abuse victims held a news conference recently, it was the quiet man standing in the background who delivered the loudest message.
Although the Rev. James Connell said little, his mere presence spoke volumes. It's not every day that a Roman Catholic priest and archdiocesan vice-chancellor stands in support as angry protesters demand his superiors stop hiding secrets about abusive priests.
Connell, 68, is an aide to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and runs two Wisconsin parishes, including one where a priest was convicted in 1993 of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. Another priest in Milwaukee County was accused of abusing some 200 boys at a school for deaf students from 1950 to 1974.
Those scandals were among the cases that spawned the Wisconsin chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The chapter's demands include asking the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to release information about other suspected abusive priests.
Connell, the archdiocese's vice-chancellor, has added his voice to those requests.
"I'm just calling for the truth," Connell told The Associated Press. "I think it's a moral obligation. Revealing the truth to facilitate healing is a moral obligation. I'm just doing what I think priests are supposed to do."
Connell, who goes by Father Jim, said he's speaking out now because former Bishop Richard Sklba was scheduled to give a deposition about the church's handling of abusive priests. Listecki wanted the deposition sealed, prompting SNAP to hold a Dec. 17 press conference calling on the archbishop to stop being secretive.
When Connell heard about it, "I asked if I could stand there with them and they said yes."
Connell didn't notify his superiors beforehand, nor did he need to, the archdiocese said.
"We may not agree with his methods but we certainly can't disagree with what he's trying to accomplish," archdiocese spokesman Jerry Topczewski said. "Clearly he feels this is where God wants him at this moment, to be a vocal, visible presence toward healing and reconciliation. We stand with Father Connell toward that end goal."
Topczewski said the archbishop was not immediately available to comment. Connell's activism is all the more remarkable because of his high position in the archdiocese. As vice-chancellor, he is an executive aide to the archbishop and is expected to help carry out the archbishop's policies. As an archdiocesan priest, he is expected to defer to the archbishop.
It's so rare that a diocesan priest or administrator publicly disagrees with a bishop on any key issue — let alone a topic as sensitive as the clergy sex-abuse crisis — that word of Connell's stand spread through the Catholic blogosphere.
Blog commenters wondered whether Connell would be silenced or punished. Connell said the archbishop had a single cordial conversation with him to understand his motivations but added that no superiors have ever threatened or chastised him. A few colleagues have questioned the wisdom of his public stand, he said, but parishioners have supported his calls for the truth.
For Connell, the priesthood is a second career. The Chicago native worked as an accountant until he felt a calling to the church. He was ordained in 1987, 12 years after he and his wife divorced. He has no children.
When Father Jim came to Wisconsin, he was asked to help investigate an abusive priest. SNAP members didn't think the investigation went far enough and held a televised news conference in late 2009 to accuse him of participating in a cover-up.
As Connell mulled the allegation, a question crossed his mind: What would I be like today if a priest had molested me as a boy?
"Many of these victim survivors were very active in parish services," he said. "They were able to be preyed upon because they were around, because they loved the church. My brothers and me, we could have been in that situation. And that changed my heart in an instant."
And he took quick action. He organized a meeting with SNAP organizers to hear their concerns. He enlisted other priests for candlelight vigils for clergy-abuse victims. And he began pushing the archdiocese to release every private file whose contents could help victims find closure. Although SNAP members were wary when Connell first reached out to them, they quickly accepted him as an ally.
"He's sharing with us that risk that every survivor takes when they start speaking out about this," said SNAP spokesman Peter Isely, who ran the 2009 news conference Connell attended. "To have someone there, an official of the archdiocese who's standing with us as a partner, it was a healing moment. It meant a lot to me."
The entire sex-abuse scandal prompted the Milwaukee Archdiocese to file for bankruptcy last week. Listecki said it was the only way to make sure that all victims were fairly compensated and also ensure the archdiocese could continue its mission.
Critics contend the filing was a stalling tactic to delay the former bishop's deposition, which is now postponed indefinitely, and to limit the documents the church might have to produce.
Connell said the bankruptcy wouldn't slow him down. If anything, he said, it reinforces the need to demand openness. Priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese work on six-year terms and then get transferred elsewhere. Connell, whose 12th year in Sheboygan is up in June 2012, said he has no doubt he'll be reassigned as is standard practice, but he isn't concerned about being exiled.
He also promised to remain outspoken, even if his words put him at odds with the church. After all, he says, canon law gives Christian faithful the right and obligation to raise their concerns about the spiritual well-being of the church.
"That canon gives me the right and responsibility to keep doing this," he said. "(My superiors) can do whatever they do, but I'm convinced I'm absolutely doing the right thing. My responsibility is to be doing whatever I need to do to serve the people."
Archdiocese of Milwaukee: www.archmil.org/archmil/home.htm