The arrest of a former Janesville priest over sexual assault allegations was disappointing but hardly a shock given the legion of similar scandals afflicting the Catholic Church.
The real surprise came from the Diocese of Madison’s about-face regarding its knowledge of a 2009 incident—unrelated to the arrest—at the priest’s Janesville home. It was an inexcusable gaffe in this era of heightened sensitivity toward sexual misconduct.
The Gazette learned of the Janesville incident May 21, four days after the priest, William A. Nolan, 64, was charged in connection to accusations of sexually assaulting an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Church in Fort Atkinson between 2006 and 2010.
In a May 21 statement, the diocese stated Nolan’s arrest prompted the diocese to receive a “new allegation of sexual misconduct” against Nolan, this one involving a 21-year-old Nolan had befriended while working at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Beloit in 2009. The “new allegation” assertion followed a May 17 diocese statement that it “had received no allegations of misconduct connected to any of Nolan’s assignments.”
The trouble is, the diocese had been aware of the Janesville incident since at least 2015 when it was reported to Janesville police. There was nothing “new” about it.
According to a 2015 police report obtained by The Gazette, on Sept. 20, 2009, the two men drank at Nolan’s home, and the last thing the then-21-year-old recalled was Nolan rubbing his head while the two sat on a couch. The man said he woke up the next day in a guest bedroom wearing only underwear. The man told police he felt “something bad may have happened” and alleged Nolan “fed” him alcohol and possibly drugged him.
Far from knowing nothing about this incident, the diocese intervened. Its chancellor at the time, Kevin Phelan, told police the diocese arranged to pay for the man to receive counseling. The diocese also moved Nolan out of Our Lady of the Assumption.
On May 25, the diocese walked back its denial claims, stating it was “incorrect to say that nobody in the diocese had ever heard there was an allegation of misconduct against Fr. Nolan, made to the Janesville Police Department.”
At worst, The Gazette and other media outlets caught the diocese in a lie. At best, the episode highlighted a communications breakdown, revealing incompetence within the diocesan ranks.
Is it any wonder why so many people—Catholics included—mistrust the church?
The church seems unable to shake its dark legacy of sexual abuse, despite the many incidents pointing to a need to reform the priesthood. The church’s hierarchical setup limits local parishes’ ability to change the church, but that doesn’t mean parishioners should sit silent. They should continue to push for solutions that address the root cause of the church’s failures.
One thing we do know: Covering up allegations or showing a lack of candor about them isn’t a good public relations strategy (see the movie “Spotlight” for an in-depth examination of church cover-ups).
The Diocese of Madison—and every other diocese, for that matter—can ill-afford to further alienate its parishioners, some of whom already pray with one eye open at church, leery of the church’s leadership.