Fr. Laurin Wenig, pastor of St. Mary’s Visitation Parish, Elm Grove, is on administrative leave after the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was notified the week of Feb. 14 of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor that dates back three and a half decades.
The district attorney’s office has concluded after reviewing the complaint that the statute of limitations prohibits a prosecution from moving forward, according to Milwaukee County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern. “The matter has been referred to our office for the possibility of criminal charges,” he told your Catholic Herald Tuesday. “We’ve taken a look at the matter and we’ve determined that we’re unable to proceed with any sort of prosecution here because the matter – the incident – is barred by the statute of limitations, which restricts the time limit within which a criminal prosecution can be brought, and in this case the allegations relate to an incident that occurred several decades ago, and the statute of limitations in effect at that time was six years meaning that the state had six years to bring a prosecution of that matter after its alleged occurrence,” he said.
“We’ve notified all of the parties involved in this matter that there won’t be – that this office will be prohibited by the statute of limitations from initiating any sort of prosecution here, and so whatever process occurs after that is within the hands of the archdiocese.”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki sent a letter to priests, deacons and parish directors Feb. 26, to inform them of the allegation dating to the 1970s and that it had been reported to the appropriate district attorney for review.
“Fr. Wenig denies the allegation and I must remind everyone that no substantiation of the allegation has occurred,” the archbishop wrote, explaining that if the district attorney’s office doesn’t pursue an investigation, “an independent archdiocesan investigation will move forward with the investigative report delivered to the Diocesan Review Board – chaired by former Lt. Governor Margaret Farrow.”
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Listecki, explained that archdiocesan protocols followed thus far include removing Fr. Wenig from the parish and restricting him from ministry.
Topczewski has been reminding people that the archdiocese’s policies and the process for handling reports of sexual abuse can be found online at www.archmil.org, and that though the accusation made against Fr. Wenig is not of something that happened today, all allegations are taken seriously. Lastly, “Fr. Wenig denies the allegation, and we remind people that no substantiation of the allegation has occurred – that’s what the process will determine.”
Fr. Pat Heppe, archdiocesan vicar for clergy, met with the parish council and staff at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 26. Deacon David Zimprich, archdiocesan associate director for deacon services and clergy advocacy and oversight, then read at each Mass the letter that Fr. Wenig addressed to parishioners and in which the priest wrote, “I absolutely deny this claim.”
His letter, also distributed to parishioners after Mass and mailed to all registered members, also explained that Fr. Wenig would need to step away from active ministry and that Deacon Richard Piontek will fulfill pastoral and administrative needs with assistance from Deacon Charles Kustner, St. Mary’s Visitation, and Fr. James Kimla, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Wauwatosa.
“You cannot believe how difficult this is for a pastor to leave his family, even on a temporary basis,” Fr. Wenig wrote.
Parishioners were “shocked” at the news, according to Deacon Zimprich.
“Kind of dumbfounded,” he said, noting that Deacon Piontek gave parents the option to have the servers lead children out of the room before the announcement was made. “A number of people at all of the Masses left in tears – they hope it’s over soon.”
Patricia Parks, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Visitation, said that an “eerie silence” filled the church after the letter was read.
“I can tell you that when he read the letter Saturday night at Mass you could have heard a pin drop,” she said.
She continues to think and pray about it, and said she’s saddened that priests did commit heinous deeds and that children and others “suffered because of the authority the priest had, the respect that was commanded by a priest, but the other side of that coin for me is that good and faithful servants, which I 100 percent believe Fr. Laurin to be, who have given their lives in service of others because they are called by God to do so, can be destroyed overnight…”
She explained that she has great sympathy for those who are victims of predator priests who use their position to intimidate and abuse, but that “priests who victimize and people who accuse innocent priests are equally reprehensible.”
Deacon Piontek said that the parish would continue “business as usual,” but that it will hold “A Healing of the Heart” prayer service at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 6. He also told your Catholic Herald that a town-hall style meeting was to be held at the parish March 2 with Deacon Zimprich and Fr. Heppe, so parishioners could discuss the process of what’s happening, state concerns and ask questions.
“Everyone is extremely supportive of our pastor and they certainly hope and pray for the best possible outcome, and we have a great deal of confidence in the process that the archdiocese has in place,” he said.
Deacon Piontek said parishioners are “confident” in the archdiocesan process and the parish.
“We have an excellent staff of people and Fr. Wenig and his predecessors have done a wonderful job of developing the staff and developing the parishioners into a group of people who are quite capable and quite interested and involved in ensuring that our parish remains strong and viable, and I think that will continue,” he said.
Fr. Heppe said St. Mary’s great leadership and wonderful people guiding the parish will keep it operating “business as usual,” with Sunday help-outs, caring senior priests and a good staff to carry out the day-to-day operations.
“I think most people realize at this particular point that it’s their faith in God that’s really important,” he said.
Fr. Wenig was ordained May 24, 1973, and celebrated his first Mass at St. Mary’s. He did graduate studies at Dormition Abbey, Mt. Sion, Jerusalem, Israel, and has served as associate pastor, St. Nicholas Church, Milwaukee; faculty of De Sales Preparatory Seminary-High School, Milwaukee; director, residency program, St. Francis de Sales Call to Ministry program-high school level; rector, Call to Ministry program; pastor of St. Matthew Church, Neosho, St. John, Rubicon, and St. Mary, Woodland; and as pastor of Holy Family Church in Whitefish Bay.