When a person is sexually abused, the trauma of the experience can deeply affect the victim’s family and friends. In fact, organizations such as the As One Project refer to the family members and friends of abuse victims as “secondary survivors.”
Milwaukee physician Ty Linn has witnessed up close how a victim’s loved ones can suffer, gaining these insights as his nephew “Robert”—and his large extended family—tried to cope in the aftermath of Robert’s abuse at age 13 by Norbertine priest Fr. James W. Stein.
“There’s a broad impact on the entire family,” says Linn, who is married to Robert’s mother’s sister. We changed Robert’s name here to protect his privacy.
Robert was a student at a Catholic high school in Green Bay in the late 1980s when he got a part-time job at the St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere. One of the perks of the job was permission to use sports facilities at the abbey, including the pool, where Robert was fondled on three occasions by James Stein.
Robert was silent about the abuse for years, Linn recounts. The teen left Wisconsin after high school to attend college in Montana, and settled there after graduation. When another of Stein’s victims pressed charges against the priest around 2000, Robert chose to press charges as well. But there was no trial. In a plea deal, Stein pleaded no contest to just one count of second-degree sexual assault of a child, and other felony charges were dismissed. According to news stories written at the time, Stein left the abbey and the priesthood in 2002.
Robert returned to Wisconsin for Stein’s sentencing in December 2004, with a crowd of family members sitting near him in the courtroom. Linn remembers that Robert and his mom addressed the court during the hearing, making Robert the only one of Stein’s victims to speak publicly that day.
Stein’s side of the courtroom was filled with priests from the Norbertine community, Linn recalls. The judge read aloud letters from priests and others who described Stein in glowing terms. Linn says hearing those letters devastated Robert’s loved ones. “Everybody in our family felt that this was all baloney to protect their brother priest,” he explains. Linn believes Stein’s good acts were likely devised to win over the community. “That’s all grooming, in my view,” Linn says, a reference to the tactics abusers use to manipulate their victims and the people around them.
But those letters were convincing to Judge Sue Bischel. Stein faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but Bischel sentenced him to just one year with a daily work-release arrangement and 10 years probation. The judge explained that she was swayed by all the statements of support Stein received, and his work as a coach and mentor. She also announced that Stein would not be required to register as a sex offender, an announcement that triggered an audible gasp in the room, Linn recalls. A short time later, the judge reversed that decision because registration is required by state law.
The FAMILY’s BuRDENS
Linn says three generations of Robert’s family were affected by the abuse. When Timothy Dolan was archbishop of Milwaukee and held a series of large public listening sessions in the archdiocese, “Robert’s grandma went, walker and all, to tell a little bit about Robert’s story,” Linn recounts. “She managed to tell his story without her voice cracking and just asked for justice.”
Robert’s parents left the Church. When Robert’s sister was married in a Catholic Mass, their mother did not attend because it was held in a church. A long-time volunteer for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Robert’s mom also found meaning working for many years as a counselor for a phone crisis line.
Robert remains in Montana. No longer Catholic, he eventually married in his late 30s and has two children. Linn says it was rewarding to attend Robert’s wedding on a hilltop in Montana. “I think that was very reparative for everybody because they saw that he had figured out a way to go on from this,” he says. But as Linn describes it, there is some sadness in the extended family about Robert’s physical distance from Wisconsin. Family members still worry about him.
Last year the family was shaken by news that another one of Stein’s victims, a man in his 40s with a wife and children, had taken his own life. He was obviously not doing as well as he had seemed, Linn says. “My take is that young people can survive clergy abuse, can even build what appear to be stable lives after the trauma, only to have the always-present memories of it be a part of what destroys them later,” Linn reflects.
Linn volunteers with Awake as a member of the Advocacy Working Group, in part because he cannot forget what it felt like to sit in the courtroom with Robert and his family as those letters supporting James Stein were read aloud. “The organized Church goes out of its way to try and make these people look like good people,” Linn says. “It is hard to believe that the Norbertines would be high-fiving each other in the parking lot of the courthouse in sight of the victims and their families, but they were.”
On a personal level, Linn hopes to see change in the Church and the priesthood, “to safeguard it from future terrible sins,” he says. “It must change. And with the Lord’s love and all of our prayers, it can.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Update, 9/16/20: We’ve changed the pseudonym of Linn’s nephew to ensure that he’s not mistaken for another person with the same name.
Note from Awake: We extend heartfelt thanks to Ty Linn for sharing his family’s 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 have 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. We invite you to reach out to us if you would like to connect.