The headline stunned Peter Isely as he walked into his neighborhood cafe to get coffee, rolls and a Sunday newspaper. Blazing across the front page of the Milwaukee Journal was an opinion column by Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland, responding to news stories about a priest who had sexually abused children. This was in November 1992, […]
The headline stunned Peter Isely as he walked into his neighborhood cafe to get coffee, rolls and a Sunday newspaper. Blazing across the front page of the Milwaukee Journal was an opinion column by Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland, responding to news stories about a priest who had sexually abused children.
This was in November 1992, long before a scandal over such abuse would erupt nationally, yet Weakland felt too much attention had been paid to the issue. He declared that sexual abuse by priests had “become almost a preoccupation in our society” and that “priests need to be reassured by the entire Catholic community that they are loved and supported.”
Only one sentence in the 800-word column acknowledged the victims: “My heart goes out to all victims and I am sincere in saying that the Catholic community wishes to do what is right in helping those so affected to regain full and productive lives.”
The column hit Isely hard.
Brought up as a devout Catholic, Isely seemed destined to join the clergy. Isely had attended St. Lawrence, a seminary prep high school where he was sexually abused. Although he ultimately abandoned his dream of the priesthood, he was still a practicing Catholic who attended Mass weekly. He had tried to put the abuse behind him and consciously avoided stories on the subject. “I turned away when something was reported on television,” Isely says. “I wanted to put it all behind me.”
But after reading Weakland’s piece, Isely went immediately to his computer and wrote a response. “In a moment, I knew what I had to do,” Isely recalls. “I hoped I could prod Weakland to take the lead in the church” and take on the clergy abuse issue.
Journal Editor Sig Gissler received the response from Isely and decided the newspaper would run it the following Sunday, again on Page One. “We checked his credentials,” Gissler recalls. “He was a psychotherapist and had a divinity degree from Harvard.” And his “open letter to Weakland” was compelling.
Isely called on Weakland and the church to not only banish the abusers but confront the culture that allowed the abuse to occur. “Root out the priest sex offender, yes; but also root out, when necessary, any attitude or perception that may have, directly or indirectly, assisted him in committing his crimes,” Isely wrote.
It was a watershed moment for him – and for Milwaukee’s Catholic community. For the first time, Isely publicly acknowledged he had been assaulted by a priest from the time he was 13 until he was 17. It was also the first time that Weakland was publicly criticized on this issue by a liberal, rather than by conservative Catholics, who had been critical of the archbishop on many counts. And it was the opening salvo in a war that has lasted more than 18 years and is still going strong.
For Isely, now 51, dealing with the trauma he suffered transformed him from a wounded man into the self-appointed public conscience of the Catholic Church. Isely became the leader of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and perhaps the best-known protester of any kind in Milwaukee. His presence is striking: He’s 6-foot-2 with a shaved head and a long, angular face, lending the air of an Old Testament prophet to his press conferences. Adding biblical fire is the intensity of his rapid-fire speech, the incisive intellect that draws on Camus, Kierkegaard and the Gospels with equal ease as he makes his points.
He has been idolized and demonized for his blunt, passionate and confrontational style, but no one can doubt his impact. He helped lead the way for Weakland’s fall from grace and has been an equally effective antagonist to Weakland’s archbishop successors, Timothy Dolan and Jerome Listecki. Isely even took the battle to the Vatican, where he implicated Pope Benedict XVI in the worldwide cover-up of the abuse of children.
In a world where relativism often rules, Isely is engaged in a sharp-edged moral war against the church’s leaders, and he and his followers show no sign of surrendering.
Neither does the other side.
Joseph Peter Isely was born in September 1960 in Fond du Lac. He and his fraternal twin, Paul, have four older brothers and two older sisters.
His parents, John and Magdalene Isely, were just 18 when they married. John Isely had attended the St. Francis De Salles Seminary High School but left at 17, lying about his age to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Magdalene was a devout Catholic who attended Mass and prayed the rosary five times every day of her life.
“She would slip holy medals under our mattresses,” Isely says.
John Isely was a successful homebuilder and real estate agent. Magdalene, the daughter of Croatian immigrants, had her hands full caring for eight children.
When the twins were 9 months old, the unimaginable happened: John Isely was driving home when a tire on his car blew out. A head-on collision with an oncoming car killed John, a 10-year-old boy and the boy’s grandparents.
Magdalene was forced to move her brood from a large home her children remember as luxurious to a crowded three-bedroom ranch house. Ann Isely Fox, an older daughter, recalls sharing a bedroom with her mother and sister while three boys bunked in each of the other two bedrooms.
Peter Isely remembers the tiny house being in constant turmoil but not unhappy. “We hated the powdered milk, the powdered eggs, the spaghetti meals and all the hand-me-downs,” he recalls. “But we really bonded as a group.”
All the children attended the St. Joseph Parish elementary school in Fond du Lac and attended Mass daily, even when school wasn’t in session.
“We used to play church when we were growing up,” Fox recalls. “My aunt Ann made vestments and Peter was the priest. I couldn’t be the priest, of course, so I was always the congregation.” They’d squish Wonder bread until it was flat and then use a small glass to cut out the “hosts.”
“The community at St. Joe’s raised me,” Peter Isely says. “I remember our pastor, Monsignor Francis Reardon. When I was 7, he told me, ‘One day you will be a priest.’ I believed him.”
Isely’s mother was also determined that one or more of her sons would enter the priesthood. Three eventually went to seminary, but all left before ordination.
“I would jokingly tell her she was a priestophile,” Isely says. “She was part of that utterly unique class of devoted Catholic mothers who labored tirelessly to get a Roman collar around one of her sons.”
Peter Isely was a good student who attended nearby St. Lawrence Seminary High School, a boarding school, on scholarship. Run by Capuchin monks, it was known as “the poor boys’ seminary,” with a sprawling campus set high above the village of Mt. Calvary. Founded in 1860 by Swiss monks, it’s still called “hill of happiness” in Capuchin recruitment literature.
For Isely and scores of students, it could have been called the hill of horrors.
Isely was repeatedly raped by the Rev. Gale Leifeld, the principal, or rector, of the high school. Isely says he knew of one other boy who was assaulted by the priest. It was years later that he learned there were many others.
“Leifeld would tell me, ‘Don’t tell your mother – it would kill her,’ ” Isely says. “When you are a kid, you blame yourself for everything. I felt it was my fault.” Isely kept it secret: Even in confession, he never disclosed the abuse.
Michael Rocklin, a fellow student, says he was also abused by Leifeld and was afraid for other reasons: Several students who were caught having sex with each other were expelled. Rocklin eventually confessed to a priest. Rocklin says he was given counseling and was told Leifeld was given counseling as well. “He stayed at the school and it was awkward. It was the elephant in the room.”
Despite the abuse, Isely had bright moments in school: He was president of his senior class, editor of the school newspaper, acted in several school plays and ran track. He also developed his talent as an artist. His abuser kept several of his drawings.
After graduation, Isely lived with a group of friars at a Capuchin house in
Milwaukee, the rectory of St. Francis of Assisi parish at 1927 N. Fourth St. It was the first step toward ordination as a Capuchin. He lived there for a year and a half, running the youth program and the neighborhood meal program.
The next step toward priesthood would have been to enter the novitiate. But Isely never got there. The Rev. Perry McDonald, a Capuchin who oversaw Isely’s work, wrote an evaluation of Isely’s work noting the young man was late for morning prayers on occasion but predicting Isely would be a force to be reckoned with.
“Prophetic indeed,” McDonald now says. “My opinion of what he went on to do is that it has helped the church.”
Isely says he left because he was asked to immediately enter the novitiate. He believes Capuchin leaders had become aware of his growing friendship with Patricia Batemon, a parishioner whom he later married.
Batemon, who is a year younger than Isely, lived in the neighborhood. The Batemons were longtime members of St. Francis of Assisi, and she was a soloist in the gospel choir.
“I remember walking into church as the choir was practicing,” Isely says. “I was sitting at the back and heard her sing. I thought it was the voice of an angel. It was love at first voice.”
Although he was only 18 or 19, Isely was teaching a class at the parish on Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi prison camp, wrote about finding a reason to live during that harrowing time. Batemon took the class and was captivated by Isely. “It was not romantic,” she says. “But in my heart, I knew I’d always be connected to this man.”
The couple became friends but did not share even a kiss for a year or two. Neither had ever had a sweetheart. But their relationship gradually grew into love.
After Isely left the Capuchin community, he and Batemon enrolled at UW-Milwaukee, he in comparative religion, she in social work.
Walter Neevel, an emeritus professor in comparative religion, became Isely’s mentor. “He was one of the top students we’ve seen in the program,” says Neevel. “He was passionate about his work.”
Isely was a founder of the UWM Peltz Center, a program to teach the literature of the Holocaust in Catholic schools. His grade point average was just shy of 4.0. Neevel suggested Isely apply to Harvard University Divinity School.
“It was the only place I applied,” says Isely. “I had never even been outside the state.”
The three-year program is a rigorous nonsectarian school of theology and religious studies that trains students for the ministry. Despite the fact that women and noncelibate men could not become priests, there were more Catholics in the school than students from any other denomination.
“We had no idea what we were going to do when we finished,” Isely says.
Deborah Dilger Organ was the only other Milwaukeean in the program. She became a clinical social worker who works out of a parish in St. Paul, Minn., and is still a devout Catholic.
“Peter is one of the sharpest intellects I have met,” she says. “I thought he’d get a doctorate and teach somewhere.”
Isely arrived at Harvard in 1984 and was there during an optimistic era for liberal Catholics. They yearned for a change in Vatican rules barring women and married men from full ministry in the church, and hoped for a continuation of the reforms of the groundbreaking 1960s Vatican II council of church leaders.
“We wanted the full development of the lay church to take our place alongside the hierarchy in jointly working out the future of our church,” Isely says.
Weakland was seen as the obvious leader on such issues: He was nationally known as a maverick who often addressed matters the Vatican deemed unspeakable. He supported an expanded role for women in the church, met with ex-priests who had married and encouraged lay leadership in the church. So admired was he among liberal Catholics that some had buttons made declaring “Weakland for Pope.”
So when Weakland was invited to speak at Harvard at Organ’s suggestion, Isely was delighted. As a member of the Milwaukee archdiocese, he was assigned to escort Weakland to his rooms after the archbishop spoke.
The two men had so much in common. Both were from big families whose fathers died when they were quite young, and were raised in poor homes by devout Catholic mothers. Both vividly recalled the powdered eggs and powdered milk they ate as children. Both had become Catholic intellectuals who passionately wanted to reform the church.
But they never really connected.
“Weakland was totally distracted,” Isely says. “He said almost nothing during the walk. The only thing that seemed to engage him was when I brought up used bookstores in the area.”
The two men would never meet face to face again.
The pivotal class at Harvard for Isely was not in theology, but a class called Psychology of Secrecy. The professor, the late John Shlien, told his students their main textbook would be their own experience with secrecy. Each student had to write down a deep secret and carry that shred of paper with them at all times.
The class, said Isely, helped him begin to understand the impact of his sexual abuse and how secrecy made it impossible to fully deal with it. The first person Isely told was Batemon.
“I cried,” Batemon says. “He cried. He was beginning to deal with it.”
Isely began seeing a therapist. “I woke up screaming almost every night for 15 years,” Isely says. “It doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
Anna Salter, a Madison clinical psychologist who has written extensively on child sex abuse victims, says it is not unusual for them to keep it secret for decades. Abuse by a priest is particularly difficult to report. “Typically, the abused children come from devout families,” she says. “Often, the priest was a father figure. The victims often think they will never be believed.”
After Harvard, Isely went back to UWM, where he earned a second master’s degree, this one in psychology, and became a licensed psychotherapist. He also sought more counseling to deal with the abuse.
“I wanted to get over it,” Isely said. “I wanted to get it in the past.”
In 1990, Isely met with the Rev. Kenneth Reinhart, the Capuchins’ provincial (the order’s top leader in the Midwest), as part of his search for healing. Reinhart was empathetic, telling Isely that he, too, had been abused as a child by a priest. He gave Isely $3,900 to pay for counseling after Isely agreed to sign papers promising to not sue the order. Reinhart promised that Leifeld, Isely’s abuser, would be closely monitored and never be in a position where he could abuse children again.
But Isely felt uneasy about the meeting and the fact that Reinhart showed no surprise. “I could not stop asking myself, ‘Why isn’t he showing any anger about this?’ ” Isely says. “Where was his moral outrage that a child had been sexually abused by a Capuchin priest?”
The question haunted Isely. “The answer had to be that I was not the only one who had been abused,” he gradually came to believe. “There had to be others.”
Isely later learned that Leifeld had been hired as recruitment director of the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, a Catholic seminary that trains older men for the priesthood, and was also preaching at St. Robert’s Parish in Shorewood.
The Rev. Richard Cerpich, now retired, was then St. Robert’s pastor and knew nothing of the allegations against Leifeld. “I even had him teaching in the school,” Cerpich complains. “Why didn’t somebody tell me? How do they monitor priests who can’t be priests anymore?”
After writing his opinion column for the Journal, Isely told Gissler he believed other boys were also abused at St. Lawrence. Gissler assigned a reporter to the story, and Isely helped the Journal locate eight former students who, it turned out, had been abused. The resulting story, which ran in 1992, shocked many Catholics.
This prompted discussions regarding Leifeld between Weakland and the Rev. Anthony Scannell, the new head of the Capuchins in the Midwest. (Ultimately, there were a dozen allegations of Leifeld’s abuse reported to the Capuchin leadership.) Weakland made it clear in a letter (that later became part of a court case) that Leifeld could not minister in any way, but his concern seemed to focus on public relations. “Any kind of public appearance would mean the whole story would be resurrected again by the press,” he wrote. (Weakland declined to be interviewed for this story, citing ongoing lawsuits.)
Later, a lawyer hired by the order found six Capuchins had abused children at the school, and at least three others were involved in questionable activity – providing boys with liquor and showing them pornography, for example. The report, however, named none of the abusers. To date, none have been named publicly, and at least two are still in active ministry outside of Wisconsin, according to court records.
The church, Isely realized, intended to continue covering up the problem. “I never wanted to go public,” he says. “Who would? Like most victims, I tried to work through the church. But the only thing that has gotten their attention is the media and the lawsuits.”
After the story on the seminary, Isely was swamped with calls from other abuse victims. One was from Patricia Marchant, also a therapist, who had been abused by Madison priest Lawrence Trainor when she was 7 years old. She learned that Trainor’s first victim came forward in 1971; he continued working as a priest without restrictions until 1989.
“It was a blessing,” Marchant says of meeting Isely. “I was pretty much alone until then.”
Frank Martinelli, another childhood victim of sexual abuse by a priest, joined Isely and Marchant. They formed the Wisconsin Action Network for Survivors of Clergy Abuse, a support group. At about the same time, Isely became a founding member of SNAP, the national group started in Chicago.
For the first time, survivors of sexual abuse in Wisconsin began to organize. And Isely quickly seized the public stage this created. “He found his voice, and that’s when healing begins,” says Organ, Isely’s Harvard classmate. “He is working for justice.”
Isely asked the Rev. Mary Ann Neevel, Walter’s wife and then the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ on the East Side, if he could hold a press conference at the church. “I held my breath because I had been involved with some Catholic priests as part of an interfaith group,” she says.
Her worry was well-founded. “On Christmas Eve, I got a letter from a priest whom I had known well,” Neevel recalls. “He was furious with me for allowing Peter to use the church.”
At the press conference announcing the formation of the Wisconsin Action Network group, Isely described his own abuse and that of others, and called on church officials to begin taking corrective action. It was the first of many press conferences by Isely – in later years as the Midwest director of SNAP – that would bluntly address the issue.
The Rev. Rick Hogan, a Catholic priest in Detroit, was stunned when he saw Isely on the evening news in 1992. They had been high school classmates. “I just flipped out,” Hogan recalls. “I thought I had been the only one.”
Hogan had kept secret his abuse by Leifeld and other priests at the school. Even after he went into treatment for alcoholism in 1991, Hogan told no one. After reconnecting with Isely, Hogan went into therapy to deal with the sexual abuse and took a leave of absence from the priesthood. While on leave, he decided to become a Lutheran minister. Ultimately, he received a letter from the Detroit archdiocese saying he would be excommunicated if he did not reconcile with the Catholic Church.
A stunned Hogan wrote a letter to the Detroit archdiocese. “I live with the reality that the Capuchins who raped and molested me as a young boy remained in full communion with the Catholic Church, some until their deaths, some continue to serve even today,” Hogan wrote.
Hogan says his life changed as a result of Isely: “Peter’s courage enabled me to come forward and tell my story.”
Isely’s rise as an agitator would bring him into conflict with the man he had once revered, Rembert Weakland. Weakland had won national praise for establishing “Project Benjamin” in 1989 as a way to deal with clergy sex abuse. But some begin to sour on it. “I left it when it came out that victims would have to return to the church to get treatment,” says Rita McDonald, a former nun who served on the board of Project Benjamin. “That’s like asking someone who has had their legs broken by the Mafia to go to the mob for treatment.”
Isely offered a much-needed corrective, McDonald believes: “Without Peter, this whole thing would have been swept under the rug.”
As Isely’s advocacy focused more light on the issue, survivors of sex abuse filed a spate of lawsuits against the church in Milwaukee, La Crosse, Green Bay and Madison between 1992 and 1995. Whenever a new lawsuit or abuse revelation emerged, Isely and a band of survivors would show up on the steps of the church where the priest had served or at church offices. Often, the survivors carried placards with enlarged pictures of victims taken at the time they had been abused. Always, there were pictures of the smiling abusers and the bishops accused of covering up the assaults.
But in 1995 and 1997, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down two decisions that gave the church considerable protection. The first found the archdiocese, under the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, could not be sued for negligent supervision of priests. The second rejected the legislature’s attempt to lengthen the statute of limitations for victims of child abuse (most victims do not discuss their abuse or begin to deal with it until adulthood), declaring the law applied only to incest cases.
Five years later, the story was on the front pages in Milwaukee and across the country, led by a Boston Globe series on pedophilia in the church, which brought down Boston Cardinal Bernard Law.
Weakland decided to hold some listening sessions on the issue. At St. John Vianney in Brookfield, he was greeted by an angry, standing-room-only crowd. A newspaper photo the next day said it all – Weakland sat in a folding chair against a wall in the church basement, looking like a beaten man, as a furious mother whose three young daughters had been abused shook her finger at him.
Weakland had also agreed to hold meetings with victims and join with SNAP in the process. Project Benjamin was to work out the details with Isely.
Isely met with the group and confronted its members.
“They were the advisers to the archbishop, professionals who lent their names and reputations to him,” Isely recalls. “So the first thing I asked was which of them had advised Weakland to conceal reports of sexual abuse of children?”
The room erupted in loud denials. Carmen Pitre, co-executive director of the Sojourner Peace Center, was among the offended project members.
“I thought, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ ” Pitre recalls. She had seen Isely on TV and didn’t like his aggressive style. “I was not once advised or asked about any priest’s reassignment!” she protested.
But Isely’s words sank in, Pitre says. “I put myself in his shoes. This committee was being used as a sort of cover. I settled down and thought, ‘Oh my God, you are right.’ ”
How much Pitre and the others didn’t know hit home the next morning. A man named Paul Marcoux went on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and revealed he had been paid $450,000 in return for his silence regarding his sexual relationship with Weakland. Marcoux called it date rape. Weakland called it consensual sex. The hush money had come from the church coffers.
“They [the Project Benjamin members] were furious with me because I didn’t tell them the story was about to break,” Isely says. Isely denies that he released the letter to ABC or had any involvement with Marcoux, but some observers don’t believe this. At the very least, Isely’s years of advocacy helped build the momentum toward Weakland’s demise. (In his 429-page
autobiography, A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, Weakland never mentions Isely.)
Greg Bell, Weakland’s communications director from 1986 until 1992, says Weakland would have been better served if he’d chosen to meet with Isely, who Bell says represented so many others. “The reality is, there were other voices, quieter voices,” Bell says. “The voices of parents and
victims. They were ignored or just shoved aside.”
Weakland’s successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, initially had a cordial relationship with Isely. They exchanged emails and met several times.
Isely and SNAP, meanwhile, were pushing the Wisconsin Legislature for a law that would allow a one-year window for victims to file lawsuits based on allegations and for legislation that would make priests and bishops mandatory reporters of child sex abuse allegations. The archdiocese successfully opposed this, and the law that passed actually gave it greater protection: Anything church officials learned in “pastoral communications” could be kept secret.
“After it was clear the legislation was not going to pass, his [Dolan’s] attitude changed,” Isely says. “He was more sarcastic and unavailable to meet. Every time the church has had the upper hand, they pounded us down.”
Isely, however, had his successes: In 2007, the state’s high court ruled the archdiocese could be sued for fraud if leaders knowingly allowed pedophile priests to remain in the ministry and did not warn parishioners.
Yet Dolan was still friendly to Isely: They would chat a bit after Dolan’s Sunday Mass at the cathedral. So Isely was taken aback by Dolan’s comment after he became archbishop of New York.
The New York Times quoted Dolan as charging that a SNAP member had spat in his face during a parish visit and “yelled that he would not rest until there was a ‘going out of business’ sign in front of every Catholic parish…”
In a letter to Dolan, Isely called such conduct appalling and asked that the person be identified. “This is obviously a very troubled person who needs psychological help,” Isely wrote. Isely says he’d never heard a word about the alleged incident.
Nor did Amy Peterson, the victim assistance coordinator for the archdiocese. “I wish he had handled it differently,” she says of Dolan. “I wish he had said, ‘I can take this because I know your pain is so deep.’ He should have been really humble and used it as a healing moment.”
Dolan did not respond to several requests for an interview.
La Crosse Bishop Jerome Listecki became Milwaukee’s next archbishop in January 2010, and Isely already had antagonized him: He held a press conference outside the La Crosse church headquarters after learning that 64 percent of priests accused of misconduct in the diocese remained in the ministry, the highest figure in the country. Almost every news story about Listecki’s move to Milwaukee mentioned SNAP and this controversy.
Early in Listecki’s tenure here, Isely criticized a new $100,000 bronze bas relief in the cathedral that had a representation of Weakland with children, a symbolic Bible story.
“It was just below the statue of Mary,” Isely complained. “Many Catholic mothers go straight to the statue of Mary to pray. All I could do was picture my mother kneeling there in prayer, opening her eyes and seeing the man who had covered up the sexual abuse of her son.”
He also called on Listecki to rename a building next to the cathedral that bore Weakland’s name and criticized Weakland’s participation in the ceremony when Listecki officially became archbishop.
Like Weakland, Listecki has refused to meet with Isely or SNAP. Listecki declined repeated requests for an interview, but in an email, he said no priest with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor can serve as a priest in Milwaukee or La Crosse. He also said the archdiocese follows mandatory reporting laws.
Isely has managed to convert one Milwaukee church official. In October 2009, he held another sidewalk press conference. He accused the Rev. James Connell, the vice chancellor for this archdiocese, of helping cover up allegations made against Lawrence Murphy, a priest who abused 200 children at St. John’s School for the Deaf. Isely demanded that Connell be removed from the board that reviews such charges.
Connell was deeply wounded. “My whole vision was to get that man out of the priesthood,” Connell recalls of his work on the Murphy case. The pain lingered for Connell and was with him the day he visited a child from his parish who was hospitalized.
“After visiting the child, I wondered what I would be like today if I had been abused as a child,” Connell says. “As I drove home, I prayed the rosary and prayed for the victims of sexual assault. I saw the issue in a whole new focus.”
Eventually, he contacted Isely and asked to meet. Connell says this discussion made him think deeply about clergy sex abuse. In June 2010, he made public a letter in which he charged that the standard used to investigate abuse allegations in the Diocese of La Crosse was flawed, may violate church law and could be putting young people at risk.
In response, Listecki quickly summoned Connell for a meeting. “It was a challenging conversation,” Connell reveals. “But no one has shown that my interpretation of canon law was wrong.”
Connell has since stood next to Isely at press conferences and brought together a group of priests who hold monthly vigils with survivors of abuse. “I realized I was inattentive to the needs of those who were suffering,” Connell says. “In hindsight, I am disappointed with how the church has handled the abuse accusations.”
Peter Isely drives a burgundy 1984 Buick Regal with 150,000 miles on it that he inherited from his mother-in-law. It’s a stick shift. “It’s got chew marks on the stick,” Isely wryly notes. “She had a dog.”
The trunk is strewn with visuals from recent SNAP press conferences, the floor of the car littered with the remains of fast food meals. “I’m like that guy who drives the car with the scripture written all over it, who shouts over his loudspeaker that the end is near,” Isely jokes.
Isely has no office. He works from a laptop in coffee shops and cafes. “The most common question I get is whether I’m a lawyer,” Isely says. “I think people think I sit in a corner office in a Downtown building overlooking the lake.”
For years, Isely did his advocacy while working full time as a therapist. In 1992, he was a co-founder of a treatment center for survivors of sex abuse at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc. “But we were not getting referrals,” says Jeffrey Ligman, a psychologist who worked with Isely at Rogers. The church, he notes, wanted to handle the scandal internally.
“This is one of the things that’s driven Peter to be so hard-core,” Ligman says. “The church position is they can handle it” – without involving other authorities or organizations.
Ultimately, the Rogers program was closed. “It was time for me to make a choice,” Isely says. “Either be a full-time therapist or a full-time advocate.”
He chose advocacy. He now maintains a small therapy practice, but given how well-known his life story has become, he doesn’t treat sex abuse victims. “A patient should not know anything about the personal history of the therapist,” he says. “That had become impossible.”
It was not until 2002 that Isely became a half-time employee of SNAP as the group’s Midwest director. Isely declines to say how much he earns. By law, SNAP’s federal tax form must list any salary of $50,000 or more, and Isely is not listed, so he earns less than that. Both he and Jeffrey Anderson, the Minnesota lawyer handling most of the abuse cases in Wisconsin, deny that Isely receives pay from the law firm. Supporters of Isely have helped with gifts over the years, including assistance with the purchase of his Shorewood home.
“He lives in near poverty,” says McDonald. She can’t believe it when she hears people who don’t know Isely accuse him of fighting the church so he can get rich.
“They think the lawsuits are about money,” says Mark Salmon, an abuse survivor and one of Isely’s early supporters. “But they are about justice.”
Salmon, who has been an activist with SNAP, says Isely’s relentless passion for justice and ferocious sense of right and wrong has emboldened others. “I’ve often said I can’t do it anymore, but then I see him and get re-energized. All I have to do is stand next to him.”
John Pilmaier, 40, was abused when he was in the second grade at the St. John
Vianney Parish. At 20, he entered the archdiocesan college seminary program but soon left. He told no one about his abuse until he was hospitalized at age 36 with a bleeding ulcer. Connecting with Isely has changed his life, he says.
“He gave me my life back. He gave me a voice.”
Pilmaier says Isely is using Catholic values in the quest for truth and justice. “They [the church hierarchy] don’t think the values apply to the church,” he says. What was most hurtful, Pilmaier says, was that after he went public with his story, not a single priest called him. “I ran into one at the Metro Market and he kept his eyes to the ground. He said ‘Hi, I have to grab a quick lunch,’ and then ran off. This was a priest who knew me and my family.”
Not everyone believes Isely is doing the right thing. Batemon recalls walking with her husband and young son Paul at Bastille Days when a man came up and confronted Isely, condemning him in no uncertain terms. “Paul was saying, ‘Stop yelling at my daddy,’ ” she recalls.
“Hate is a strong word,” Batemon says. “But there are people who hate him.”
Cathy Arney, a Milwaukee therapist who has worked with children who have been abused and is a member of the community advisory board that provides guidance to the archdiocese, has mixed feelings about Isely’s efforts.
“In all fairness, there are few people doing what he is doing,” Arney says. “He is encouraging survivors to speak out.” But Arney questions whether Isely should have pushed some of them to go public. “There’s an aftermath to that,” she notes. “I’ve had a number of friends who have come out, but then they fall apart afterward.”
But supporters say Isely’s aggressive style has been needed to force a reluctant archdiocese to face all the damage done. The allegations against Father Murphy, for instance, had been around since the mid-1970s. The archdiocese was first notified of the abuse in the mid-1950s by a Chicago priest, yet Murphy was not asked to leave St. John’s School for the Deaf until 1974 and continued to work in Catholic parishes.
Art Budzinski, one of the many children abused by Murphy, tried for decades to get the archdiocese to acknowledge what happened. In 1974, he met with then-Archbishop William Cousins. He and other deaf men continued to protest periodically, leafleting outside St. John’s Cathedral, to no avail. It was not until Isely and SNAP took up the issue that their voices were heard, Budzinski says.
In 2009, a civil lawsuit was filed against the archdiocese on behalf of Murphy’s victims. The lawyers obtained explosive documents linking the scandal to top Vatican officials – including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The documents showed Vatican officials declined to defrock Murphy, despite pleas from Wisconsin bishops. The story was first reported in The New York Times.
After releasing the documents to the Times, Isely held his most famous sidewalk press conference. He and Pilmaier showed up with placards on the steps of St. Peter’s Square the day the story appeared. The international media ran to record the event, abandoning a Vatican press conference announcing that the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus, was going on display.
Isely and other protesters were taken to a Rome police station because they had not obtained a permit to demonstrate. Upon his release, Isely uttered the quip heard ’round the world: “We just spent more time in a police station than Father Murphy did during his lifetime.”
Isely was interviewed by the BBC and the press in Germany, Italy and Ireland. Soon, survivors in European countries followed his lead and spoke about their abuse.
Getting to the Vatican on short notice was easy for Isely. It took less than 48 hours to raise $10,000, enough to cover the cost of the trip to Rome for him and Pilmaier.
McDonald helped raise the money. “Without Peter, this whole thing would have been swept under the rug,” the ex-nun says. “They call him a rabble-rouser. They called Jesus a rabble-rouser, too.”
Isely was at his most electrifying in an April event at Marquette University Law School, billed as the first ever to bring together Catholic clergy and survivors of abuse.
Isely began his talk with a story from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had come to the bedside of a sick child and, from the crowd that surrounded him, someone touched his robe. Jesus asked the crowd, “Who touched me?” A woman came forward. She had spent all her money on cures for a bleeding affliction, something that had rendered her ritually unclean, unable to touch her husband or children, Isely said.
Isely asserted the woman was a survivor of sexual abuse. He called her Jane Doe, as many anonymous victims are named in lawsuits, and a patron saint of survivors.
“Indeed, sexual crime burrows itself into the mysterious border regions between the mind and the body, what Christians call the soul,” Isely told the crowd.
“Not surprisingly, menstruation is very commonly altered by this unique and terrible trauma [of sex abuse], as are many basic and necessary bodily functions – sleep, memory, appetite,” Isely continued. “I do not believe there is a single survivor who has undergone the destitution of sexual assault, female or male, child or adult, who will not instantaneously identify with her seemingly hopeless quest to find a cure. … In fact, after seeing many doctors and specialists, she had gotten worse, according to the Gospel account, not better; not an uncommon outcome for the survivors under the care of doctors and therapists.”
But the touch of Jesus provided healing to this woman, Isely noted, and the power and promise of that touch provides hope for those who have been sexually abused.
Former MU university president, the Rev. Robert Wild, who had been called to task by Isely just days before this for protecting the nationally notorious pedophile priest Donald McGuire, did not attend the conference. Archbishop Listecki attended a portion of the conference but said nothing. Nor did any other member of the Milwaukee church hierarchy participate. The Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan weekly newspaper, ran a story quoting two other members of the panel but ignored Isely.
Quite by chance, Isely arrived at the event at the same time as Listecki, and they rode an elevator together. It was an uncomfortable encounter, Isely says.
“To have the church as my enemy has been the single most painful experience of my life,” he says. “My church! What did I do other than to love it?”
His wife says she has resigned herself to Isely’s ever-confrontational life: “Sometimes, I don’t want this issue in our life, but it’s there. It is what he is called to do.”
Isely says he thinks about quitting every day. “It’s overwhelming. It’s too much. I get to the point where I can’t do this anymore. I ask myself, ‘What difference does it make?’ Then I tell myself, ‘Just one more thing you need to do and then it will be done.’ ”
Day after day, year after year, making these deals with himself, Isely has continued his advocacy for nearly two decades, with no end in sight.
“That’s what living your faith is,” he muses. “When is the struggle for justice and truth ever done?”
Marie Rohde is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer. Write to her at email@example.com.