“Pope Francis says that the Church needs to be a ‘field hospital’ for the marginalized. I believe that we survivors of trauma have roles to play as the doctors and nurses for that field hospital.”
Bill Kessenich, 70, is a retired manufacturing executive who lives in Appleton, Wisconsin with his wife, Mary Kay. He grew up in Milwaukee as one of nine children and is a product of Catholic schools; he attended both De Sales Prep and St. Francis Seminary College, “which is where my abuse occurred,” Kessenich explains. He and Mary Kay have five children of their own, all now adults, as well as a third “daughter” from Tanzania that they put through high school and college in the United States and with whom they remain close. “Together Mary Kay and I enjoy life with 13 grandchildren, all who live near us,” Kessenich says. “My hobbies include cooking, golf, and tennis as well as spending time at our lodge in northern Wisconsin.” Kessenich recently joined Awake Milwaukee’s Board of Directors and is active in social justice and prayer at his home parish of St. Bernard in Appleton.
Awake: Bill, thank you for being open to speaking with us. What would you like to share about your abuse?
Bill Kessenich: I was groomed and abused by my spiritual director in high school and college seminary over a period of six years. During this time I received many accolades and awards for being the “perfect” seminarian, which in hindsight I believe was a reward for keeping silent and for staying on track to become part of the “old boys clerics club.” When I was offered the opportunity to study anywhere in the world by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the presumption was that I would choose Rome, which, of course, was the fast track to the clerical hierarchy. Instead, after much confused reflection, I chose Theological College at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. I felt at the time that I wanted to learn the specifically American religious ethos instead of the history of the European Church.
Those two years in Washington, D.C.—when Watergate and Roe vs. Wade dominated the headlines—were a heady period and some of the most difficult years of my life. I was gradually extricating myself from the abusive relationship I had been a part of for so long and trying to discern my vocation—was I truly called to be a priest?—as well as my sexual identity.
It was clear to me then that many of the seminarians around me had gay leanings and were engaged in relationships. Many priests, whether they were gay or heterosexual, seemed to think that active sexual relationships were permissible, as long as they weren’t talked about. I felt clearly heterosexual and struggled with a great deal of despair and loneliness because of the guilt and fear I bore alone; I was not willing or able to share with my peers the reasons for my vocational discernment struggle. I contemplated suicide. By what I see now as God’s grace, I discerned that the hypocritical path of a secretly sexually active priest was not the one that a loving God would want me to take. I left the seminary, to my own and my parents’ disappointment, but this felt like the first act of integrity I’d taken in many years. It helped me feel empowered. I met my wife-to-be a year later through friends and have found much happiness and contentment in my vocation as a married man.
Q. I’m so sorry to hear about the pain and loneliness you suffered, Bill. Can you help us understand the most difficult parts of that whole experience?
A. The most difficult things about having been abused are the isolation, the secretiveness, and the personal guilt one takes on as if it was our fault that someone chose to abuse us! I needed affirmation that, despite the abuse, I was okay. I would survive and even thrive.
Q. Where did you get that affirmation? Who has been helpful to you in your healing?
A. In the late 1980s we befriended Patricia and Mike Marchant while living in Milwaukee. Patty shared with us that she was pursuing action against the Diocese of Madison because of abuse she experienced as a seven-year-old child. Her frankness empowered me to share my own story, which I had discussed in counseling by that time. It also led me to pursue action against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Our relationship with the Marchants has meant a great deal to me and has been a tremendous source of support.
When I went to Bishop Sklba in Milwaukee to share my story, his response was very healing. He said, “Bill, how can I help?” Those four words were like a healing balm poured on an open wound. It said, “I hear you; I believe you; and I stand with you!” He arranged a meeting with Archbishop Weakland, who was not so supportive, and I later learned that he was in a relationship with a seminarian at Marquette. Bishop Sklba also arranged a meeting for me with my abuser together with my parents, who until then had not known that this priest—who had befriended them as well—had abused me. This meeting helped me come clean with my parents about why I ultimately left the seminary. I also received a settlement from the Archdiocese for counseling expenses—with silence as the price of the legal agreement. Perhaps they thought that I knew too much from my years in the seminary?
Q. Can you describe your spirituality and relationship with the Church today?
My spirituality has continued to grow as an adult believer and I am convinced that our God is a loving Father who grieves with us over the exploitation and pharisaic attitude that has characterized the hierarchy’s response to the abuse crisis. My knowledge of the many injustices that the Church has perpetrated on its believing people through its history, while angering me, has taught me not to expect too much from any human institution. This is not to let anyone off the hook for continued intransigence. It is simply confirmation that it is not the clergy or hierarchy who are the Church but all of us, the Body of Christ!
I remain active in my parish in prayer groups, our social justice committee, which I head, and through active participation in prayer and worship life. Awake Milwaukee has given me the opportunity to own my story as a survivor and to share it for the good of others.
Q. Bill, it has been an honor to hear about your experiences. Thank you so very much for sharing with us. As we close, what would you like fellow Catholics to understand about sexual abuse in the Church?
I believe the Church needs to take a more adult approach to sexuality. Fear, guilt, and the specter of sinfulness regarding all things sexual are not helpful for adolescents as they discover their own sexuality and begin exploring its meaning in their lives. I do not question the Church’s teaching here, but suggest that our way of approaching the topic with young people needs to change if the Church’s reasoning and teachings on sexuality are to resonate and have credibility. In the absence of a more adult and real-world approach, secrecy, silence, guilt, and denial become the paths of least resistance. Also, if our need as a Church is to continue to control people rather than love them, we can expect that abuse will continue in all its forms.
A second point that I’d like to make is that sexual abuse, whether it’s perpetrated by clergy, family, or strangers, is more about power than sex, though both are, of course, involved. The typical abuse case involves a power differential that leaves the victim feeling alienated, powerless, guilty, and helpless. We survivors are none of the above and we have a lot to share with others about various forms of abuse and their effects on people. Many people in the Body of Christ are survivors of trauma, including the loss of someone close, childhood stress and poverty, or broken relationships and divorce, to name a few. Pope Francis says that the Church needs to be a “field hospital“ for the marginalized. I believe that we survivors of trauma have roles to play as the doctors and nurses for that field hospital.
—Interview by Erin O’Donnell
Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Bill Kessenich for sharing his 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. We encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories from Michael Koplinka-Loehr, Kathryn Walczyk, and Kateri Lirio.
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. If you would like to connect with us, we invite you to email Sara at email@example.com.