In October 2006, Wendy Liedtke and her husband Ken were out for dinner at a quiet Italian restaurant to celebrate Ken’s sixtieth birthday. Wendy remembers that her husband was in a good mood that evening. By outward appearances, they had much to celebrate: Married for more than three decades, Ken and Wendy had two adult children. Ken worked in manufacturing, as a tool and die maker, and Wendy had a job she loved, as a diagnostic teacher for the Milwaukee Public Schools. Chatting over dinner, Wendy asked her husband if they should attend the funeral of one of his childhood friends, who had died a few days earlier.
“When I brought that up his expression changed, his body language changed,” Wendy recalls. He became agitated and angry. “He explained that he could not go, because that was the childhood friend who asked him to become an altar boy, and the thought of having to acknowledge his life brought him severe pain.”
Ken gave the basics of a story he had never before shared with Wendy: In 1958, at age 12, he became an altar boy at a Catholic parish on Milwaukee’s South Side, where a much-loved priest was famous for his brief Saturday evening Masses. That priest offered the altar boys alcohol and pornography, and eventually sexually assaulted Ken in the sacristy.
“Ken became extremely stern and said, ‘You are never to ask me about this again,’” Wendy says. “At the time my jaw just dropped but I kept his secret.” The revelation gave her much to think about, offering some insight into aspects of her husband that she hadn’t fully understood before.
Ken and Wendy’s marriage was tumultuous. He was often angry, and drank heavily at times. They made two attempts at marriage counseling, both of which felt unsuccessful to Wendy. “Most of my marriage was spent trying to figure out why he didn’t see the joy in our family that our two children and I did,” she says. Ken also had a habit of offering brief details about painful episodes of his early life and then forbidding Wendy to ask questions or speak about them. For example, he mentioned that his mother had been abusive when he was a child, and that his first marriage had been short and violent.
Ken and Wendy were married in 1973, in a garden wedding at her parents’ home. They had wanted a church wedding, but the priests they approached couldn’t marry them until Ken received an annulment of his first marriage, which he was not emotionally ready to pursue at the time. As a married couple, they had complicated and angry feelings about the Catholic Church. They attended Mass only rarely, though when their children were born, beginning in 1976, they had them baptized and sent them to Catholic school. Wendy also took them to Mass at times. As their daughter was preparing for her First Communion, she asked why Dad never attended Mass with them. Wendy says those questions led Ken to apply for an annulment for his first marriage, which was granted.
Looking back, Wendy now understands how hard it was for him to pursue the annulment and even set foot in a church. “The smells and the sounds, and the stained-glass windows were just reopening that wound he was trying very, very hard to keep buried,” she says.
After the night that he described the abuse by the priest, Ken mentioned it just two more times. The first came when he and Wendy saw a news story about the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “I asked him, would he ever report his abuse? And he said that just saying the words out loud made him feel dirty,” Wendy says. He did not view a monetary settlement as useful, or a way to pay for psychotherapy, for example. “He said, ‘No amount of money could get me to sit down across from somebody connected with the Catholic Church and tell them my story.’” He never did report his abuse to law enforcement or Church officials, Wendy says, and his abuser died in 1987 at age 61.
Ken had a heart attack in 2010, and as part of his recovery, his medical team referred him for mental health treatment. He saw several psychotherapists in the years that followed, and received multiple diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder. The diagnoses gave Wendy new ways to understand her husband and how his experiences had shaped him. In her job as a diagnostic teacher assessing students who needed special education services, Wendy says she often worked with children who had trauma histories. “Little did I know that I was hearing stories that mirrored my own husband’s upbringing,” she says. “I never made the connection because I was too close to his pain.”
Wendy says that she and Ken found new peace and “a profound, deep love” in the final years of his life. In the summer of 2018 he was diagnosed with dementia. Wendy treasures a love letter he wrote to her around that time: “You are my best friend and I can’t express to you how much it means to me that you stuck it out with me even though we had some very rough times together. You are truly my soulmate.”
He and Wendy were visiting their daughter in Nevada in November 2018 when Ken suddenly collapsed and died. Doctors believed it was likely the result of a heart attack or stroke. Wendy remembers sitting next to his body right after his death, and noticing the look of peace on his face. “I felt this intense feeling of love for him,” Wendy says. “And the next thing I thought was, ‘Oh honey, how am I going to tell your story?’”
In the months after Ken’s death, Wendy felt driven to learn what she could about the things Ken kept buried so deeply. She connected with family members and friends, asking them questions about Ken’s life, and began to piece together some parts of his story, including the abuses his mother committed and his “disastrous” first marriage. She also spoke with one of Ken’s most trusted friends, who happened to be the brother of the deceased man who had once invited him to be an altar boy. “He told me there had been rumors about this kind of behavior by priests, but he had never heard anything negative about that priest, who had been very popular,” Wendy says. Ken never told his friend about the abuse.
In time, Wendy also talked with her children about their father, revealing these parts of his story. “They are troopers,” she says. “Being 39 and 44, they are part of the generation where mental illness and trauma are comfortable for them to speak of.”
Wendy began to think of herself and her children as “secondary survivors” of Ken’s experiences. “The unacknowledged pain that my husband was not able to resolve just permeated throughout our lives,” she says. “I realize that I have inherited the pain he carried.” Ken’s mother and the abusive priest “imposed cruel and unthinkable acts against my husband and also impacted our marriage and the lives of our children,” she says.
About a year after Ken’s death, Wendy started looking for support and information, but found frustratingly little for the families of clergy abuse survivors. After months of searching she stumbled on the Awake Milwaukee website and sent a note saying that she would like to share her story. She met with Sara Larson of the Awake Leadership Team, and said she felt “welcomed with open arms.”
Her feelings toward the Church have softened. Toward the end of Ken’s life, Wendy served as a substitute teacher at a Catholic school. Attending Mass with the students felt surprisingly meaningful to her. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I miss the ritual, I miss the people, I miss the hymns, I miss everything about it.’” After years of anger toward the Church, she is considering joining a parish.
Wendy is currently a member of Awake’s Walking with Survivors working group, which she sees as a way to help others who might be suffering under the weight of painful experiences. “I want people who hear my story to ask what they can do to help survivors,” she explains. “What can they do to strengthen the Catholic community? What is their responsibility, if any, to help those who have been sexually abused by clergy?
“After all,” Wendy asks, “wouldn’t that be a sign of compassion?”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Wendy Liedtke for sharing her story. We also want to acknowledge that every survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors, and are committed to bringing you their stories.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual abuse, you can receive support through the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, 800-656-4673, which operates 24 hours a day. In Milwaukee, you can contact one of the Aurora Healing Centers at 414-219-5555. If you seek support from the Catholic Church, contact the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at 414-758-2232. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors and their families. We invite you to reach out to us if you would like to connect.