On this blog in June 2020 I first shared the story of Wendy Liedtke, a widow who was grieving the sudden death of her husband, Ken, at age 72.
Wendy had stumbled upon Awake Milwaukee the previous year during a late-night internet search for information about sexual abuse in the Church. Roughly a decade before Ken’s death, he revealed to Wendy that he had been sexually assaulted as a child by a priest at a parish on Milwaukee’s South Side. The couple had been married for 33 years at the time of his revelation.
Ken shared only a few details and warned Wendy never to speak about the abuse again. He could be difficult; he was often angry and didn’t find a lot of joy in daily life. Out of love, and to keep the peace, Wendy maintained his secret. But after his death, she began seeking answers about Ken’s life and trying to find healing for herself and her two adult children.
She found Awake’s website and sent a message to executive director Sara Larson, who met Wendy for coffee. The experience of talking with Sara about Ken’s abuse was comforting, even life-changing for Wendy, and that’s why she agreed to speak with me for the blog post we published in the summer of 2020. She had begun to think of herself and her children as “secondary survivors” of Ken’s abuse, given that his wounds contributed pain to their life together as a family.
“Because an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan was not implemented earlier in his life, I had tried desperately to love someone who was hiding a secret that held a lot of power,” Wendy told me recently. “His secrets and silence left me in the dark—confused, concerned, and also suffering needlessly because his behavior reflected untreated pain, not necessarily how he really felt about me or our children.” When we connected this time, Wendy was eager to share the latest twists and turns in her journey to find peace.
Seeking The Answers She Needed
Wendy is, by her own admission, “one of the most curious people you’ll ever meet,” and has been direct and unafraid in seeking information about Ken’s life. She’s the kind of person willing to contact her husband’s first wife to ask questions about what he was like back then.
The conversation with his first wife revealed that their brief marriage, later annulled by the Catholic Church, was made especially difficult by Ken’s complex PTSD, depression, and anxiety, all undiagnosed at the time. The conversation gave Wendy important information. “His mental illness was already in place when he was married the first time,” she explains. “His ex-wife brought me so much peace that I walked away being grateful. No one knows what that process of healing looks like, right?”
After the last blog post appeared, Wendy met again with one of Ken’s childhood friends. He recalled that Ken was 10 or 11 when he met the priest known as Fr. Jack. In their Polish neighborhood in the 1950s, kids were often sent by their parents to church for confession on Saturday afternoons. But neighborhood friends told Ken that Fr. Jack was willing to hear private confessions for kids at the rectory, providing an easy alternative to confessions at church. “That one thing changed my husband’s life forever,” Wendy says. She learned that he continued going for confession with Fr. Jack for several weeks at least. Wendy suspects that the rectory is where Ken was groomed and ultimately abused.
Talking to Fr. Jack
Wendy looked up information about Ken’s abuser, who died in 1987 at age 61. She discovered that Fr. Jack is buried in a Catholic cemetery just seven minutes from her apartment. She decided to visit.
When she found his grave, Wendy spoke out loud to Fr. Jack, pacing the cemetery rows and venting her anger. She found that she had more to say, so she began returning regularly, sometimes a few times a week. This was the summer of 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 shutdown, and Wendy says the quiet cemetery gave her a place to go where she wouldn’t run into other people.
“I kept a folding chair in my car, and if I was running an errand and had time, I would go to him, pull it out and sit there,” she recalls. Wendy asked him questions, like how he could hurt a dutiful 11-year-old boy trying to do the right thing by going to confession. “I was so angry with him that it was borderline hate,” Wendy acknowledges. While pacing, she noted that the monument marking Fr. Jack’s grave dwarfed all the nearby gravestones. It felt to Wendy that even in death the priest held power over those around him. Yet in time she decided that her fury at the priest gave him too much power. “I thought, ‘You were able to silence Ken, but you are not going to silence me,” Wendy explains.
Fr. Jack is buried next to his mother, and Wendy began to wonder about the priest’s family. Through internet research she learned that Fr. Jack’s mother had served as his housekeeper and cook. Her focus gradually shifted to the priest’s mother. “I started thinking,” Wendy says, “did the mother know?”
She wants to believe Father Jack and his mother had a loving relationship, given that the mother chose to work for him in the rectory. If she knew that her son was grooming and abusing young boys, Wendy says, she likely suffered.
“My anger for Fr. Jack shifted to pure empathy for the mother,” she explains. “Talking to the mom helped a lot, because Jack is somebody’s son, not this evil monster that I wanted him to be.”
Talking with Archbishop of Milwaukee Jerome Listecki, even in a one-sided conversation written on paper, helped Wendy too. She imagined sitting down with the archbishop and asking that an empty chair be placed at the table to represent Ken’s memory. Wendy wrote out what she would say at this imaginary meeting: “His status of victim would remain with him his entire life. He simply was unable to thrive emotionally in life. I want to request that it be recorded that my husband’s soul was taken by this priest! And that the absence of joy in my husband’s life was the real sin!”
From Fact-Finding To Healing
It became important to Wendy that Ken’s story be recorded. When Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced a statewide investigation of sexual abuse in churches and established a website and phone line for victim-survivors and families to make reports, Wendy was eager to file a report about Ken’s abuse.
“His name has to be there,” she says. “His name has to be on some kind of list where a hundred years from now, when someone’s studying this, they will see that he suffered.”
Wendy feels seen as a survivor of abuse since she found Awake in 2019. Looking back, she realizes she was in a particularly sad, angry place when she first met Awake’s Sara Larson. Sharing the story of what happened to Ken with someone compassionate—and then being interviewed for the blog about how his abuse affected their family life—shifted her emotional state.
“I’ll always be grateful for Sara,” she says. “She helped me climb out of a darkness that was part of my grieving process.” Wendy recently joined the new Awake Secondary Survivor Circle for loved ones of victim-survivors, and has found the insights of others in the group helpful.
She’s been thinking lately that for every victim-survivor, there are spouses, siblings, cousins, and friends also wounded by the abuse. She wonders, sometimes, what might have happened if Ken had never told her about his experience with Fr. Jack. “One population overlooked by the Church hierarchy is the generations that never knew that their loved ones suffered in silence,” Wendy says, adding that these silent victims may have used alcohol or drugs to cope with their pain.
She remains close to God and values spirituality, but Awake is now Wendy’s primary tie to the Catholic Church. She knows there are many victim-survivors and loved ones who, like her, have left the Church. It would be easier to stay, she says, if more leaders in the Church acknowledged the suffering of victim-survivors and their families and incorporated an understanding of the emerging science of trauma into the fabric of the Church. Yet, over the last year, her anger toward the Church has faded. “When you stay angry, they continue to hold the power.”
And when you share your story, Wendy has learned, you start healing.
—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 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 414-769-3332. 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.