After Judge William Hue read the not guilty verdict in the molestation trial of former Janesville priest William A. Nolan, the packed courthouse erupted with cries of “God is good.”
Nolan had been accused of molesting a middle school-aged altar boy while he served at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Atkinson around 2007. The jury acquitted him on five counts of sexual assault of a child under 16.
In a weeklong trial that saw both the accuser and Nolan testify, the jury took four hours to decide the 66-year-old priest’s fate.
“Very, very stressful,” Nolan said about the trial. “I knew I was telling the truth. And I knew there were gaps and there were so many inconsistencies with the accuser’s stories. I felt that would eventually be discovered.”
During the trial, defense attorney Jonas Bednarek worked to poke holes in the accuser’s testimony and the prosecution’s case.
“I don’t believe any reasonable view of the evidence supports his claims,” Bednarek said in his closing remarks.
Bednarek was able to show the jury discrepancies in the state’s timeline by comparing what the accuser told police in his initial reports and what he testified to at court.
“This doesn’t make any sense logistically,” Bednarek said. “Does this make sense? I don’t think so.”
Perhaps the most important piece of evidence was Nolan’s body.
“This case is about anatomy at the end of the day,” Bednarek said in his closing statement. “I challenge (Assistant District Attorney Brook) Teuber to … explain to you how somebody who supposedly had sexual contact of various flavors over a hundred times can’t tell you about that anatomy. One time? Maybe. Twice? Possibly. One hundred times? Not a chance.”
Teuber reminded jurors of the strange power of memory in our own lives.
What it came down to, Teuber said, is whose memory to believe.
“There are only two people who know what went on behind closed doors and in private spaces,” she said.
After being acquitted, Nolan said the memory of the ordeal will stick with him.
“You know, I’m a Catholic priest, and I’m supposed to forgive, and I think I can do that,” Nolan said. “But I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the way (the accuser) ruined my life.”
Nolan, who served Janesville’s St. John Vianney Catholic Church from 1989 to 1994, thanked family and friends who filled the courtroom to support him during the trial. Many of his supporters were overwhelmed with emotion after the verdict was read.
“Completely overjoyed that truth and justice prevailed in this case,” Nolan’s sister Janet Masters said. “Anyone that knows my brother Bill knows that he would never be capable of any act like this. I think the evidence that was presented made that so crystal clear.”
Masters said she was glad her brother can start getting a sense of normalcy back in his life.
“It doesn’t take away the hell (Nolan) has been through the last 16 months,” Masters said. “But at least he can start his life over. You saw all the supporters in this courtroom, people that know Bill know he’s the most wonderful, selfless man and he didn’t deserve this. I’m so glad he’s free and can just move on from this.”
The four hours waiting for the verdict felt like forever, Masters said.
“You sit here for hours waiting, and you start to worry,” Masters said. “But when I heard the not guilty, oh my God. He and our family have been through hell dealing with these false accusations. Then to finally have him be vindicated, I can’t even really tell you the feeling of relief and joy I felt at that moment.”
Nolan said he planned to begin the steps to be taken off administrative leave by the Diocese of Madison and that he hopes to serve as a priest again.
“I’d like to be able to get back to ministry,” Nolan said, “just to be able to help out where help is needed.”