Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Past and the Present

Wisconsin is a big place, but it's small world. And there hangs a tale.

Back in the fall of 1970, I was a 1st grader at St. Therese School in Appleton, Wisconsin. I didn't stay in the first grade for long, because my dad had taught me how to read when I was younger and the teachers at St. Therese decided that I should be pushed up a grade, so they moved me to a 2nd grade classroom after the first quarter. There's a lot more to that story, but it's not germane to what I'd like to talk about today, so we'll set it aside.

I don't remember a lot about being in the first grade classroom, but I remember a game the teacher, Mrs. Niedzwicki, used to play to keep the kids interested in reading. The desks in her classroom were arranged in rows and she would show a flash card with a word to the first two kids. The first kid to identify the word then got to compete against the next kid in the row. The idea was to see how quickly kids could identify the words. Since I already knew how to read, I tended to dominate this competition and would usually beat the entire class.

There was a boy named Todd Merryfield in my class. In 1970, Todd was a bright-eyed kid with a big smile and a lot of confidence. He lived a few blocks away from me and while we weren't great friends, I remember playing with him and attending a the birthday party of a mutual friend with him. I also remember something else about Todd -- he was smart as a whip. And he was the only kid who ever beat me in Mrs. Niedzwicki's flash card game.

As time went on, the Merryfield family moved from Appleton and I moved across town to a different school. I don't know that I ever spoke with Todd after, say, 1972 or so. So while I remembered Todd Merryfield's name, he just became part of the tapestry of my childhood. I have no idea if Todd Merryfield even remembers me today -- he'd have no reason to remember me.

Flash forward to the fall of 1978. By then, I was a sophomore in high school. My dad had always encouraged my brothers and I to help out the political campaigns of local Republican candidates. We'd go down to the Republican headquarters in downtown Appleton and the campaign officials would put us to work stuffing envelopes, doing literature drops and sometimes placing lawn signs for a variety of candidates. In 1978 the incumbent state assemblyman was a guy named Toby Roth, who was a friend of my father. Roth was running for Congress that year and we were there at my dad's behest to assist the Roth campaign.

We also helped out the Republican who was running to replace Roth in the state assembly, a young district attorney named David Prosser. I remember meeting Prosser when he stopped in the campaign office and shaking his hand, but I'm certain he'd have no idea who I am today.

As it happened, the 1978 campaign was a successful one for the Republicans in Appleton -- Roth was elected to Congress that year and had a long career representing the 8th District, while Prosser won the assembly seat, beginning a long career that has culminated with his current position as a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Something else happened not long after, something that I did not know about at the time. The lives of David Prosser and Todd Merryfield intersected in a way that has had reverberations in 2011.

By 1978, Todd Merryfield and his younger brother Troy were living in Freedom, Wisconsin, a small town about 15 miles northeast of Appleton. While living there, Todd and Troy were victims of John Patrick Feeney, a Catholic priest from St. Nicholas Parish, who had abused both of the brothers.

The case had come to the attention of authorities and in early 1979 district attorney David Prosser had to make a decision: should he prosecute the priest and put the two boys through the trauma of having to testify at a public trial, or should he rely on the assurances of the Green Bay Diocese and the bishop, Aloysius Wycislo, that the offending priest would be punished. Prosser decided not to pursue the matter.

As was too often the case in those days, the diocese didn't deal with the matter at all until much later, by which time Feeney had abused others at St. Nicholas. Feeney ended up leaving the parish in Freedom but was simply recycled; he ended up serving at other parishes in the diocese, where he abused more children. Finally, in 2004, Feeney was brought to justice and the Merryfield boys were instrumental in making that happen.

Now, in 2011, the Merryfield case has been a big issue in the vicious race between Prosser, who is running for reelection to the Supreme Court, and Joanne Kloppenburg, the would-be avenging angel in the employ of the public employee unions, who is running to replace Prosser and who is essentially promising to use her potential Court seat to nullify the budget repair bill that the Wisconsin legislature has passed and that Gov. Scott Walker has signed into law, the bill that has so enraged the public employee unions in Wisconsin. And Todd and Troy Merryfield have become pawns in this larger game.

A third-party group, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, has been running ads that blame Prosser for not prosecuting Feeney. The ads were pretty flimsy and both of the Merryfields have been highly critical of what the Greater Wisconsin Committe has said about their case. Troy, the younger Merryfield brother, now lives in Virginia. While he was resentful of Prosser's decision earlier and said as much, he said this about the pro-Kloppenburg ad (PDF):

As a victim, I find the ad of by the Greater Wisconsin Committee to be offensive, inaccurate and out of context. I hope that organization will remove the ad. I hope Ms. Kloppenburg will encourage that organization to remove the ad. I hope all websites, blogs, and other purveyors of political information would stop portraying this case inaccurately and out of context. If I was a resident of the State of Wisconsin, I would vote for David Prosser in the upcoming election.
Kloppenburg hasn't honored Troy Merryfield's request, of course. Nor has the Greater Wisconsin Committee. So Troy Merryfield has now made this appearance in an ad sponsored by a pro-Prosser group, which calls Kloppenburg out in no uncertain terms. Throughout the events of the last few weeks, Todd Merryfield has stood with his brother in denouncing the pro-Kloppenburg forces who have used his family's pain for political advantage.

What's been happening in Wisconsin over the past 6 weeks has been extraordinary and vicious. Prosser has had a largely distinguished career, although he's had a few injudicious moments. Should he have trusted Aloysius Wycislo's assurances? As it turns out, that was a mistake. Troy Merryfield himself, even though he supports Prosser now, said in 2008 that Prosser "dropped the ball." We know a lot more about the the scandal of priest abuse in 2011 than we did in 1978 and Prosser was helpful in bringing Feeney to justice much later on, as Troy Merryfield has pointed out.

Prosser may lose his seat on the Supreme Court on Tuesday, because the unions and their allies have poured millions of dollars into the campaign to unseat him. No matter what you think about the merits of the budget repair bill, one thing is clear -- Todd and Troy Merryfield have been abused again through this process. Kloppenburg may get a seat on the Supreme Court as a result, but that result won't be a matter of justice.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Excellent post. Share this with as many people as possible. Well done.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

There's really no depth to which they won't sink, is there? If I were a Wisconsin Democrat, I'd be feeling mighty uncomfortable these days about my fellow travelers.

Gino said...

IF you were a wisconsin democrat, you'd be right at home with your fellow travelers, and wouldnt be the WBPicklesworth we've come to love.

Anonymous said...

Before you guys get injured straining to pat yourselves on the backs, you might pay a little attention to this story about Professor William Cronon at MW Madison:

Or, if you don't want to wade through the details, James Fallows' excellent take on it:

And if you didn't have your blinders on, you might also have noticed the story of the Republican Indiana Deputy AG who suggested that Wisconsin cops use live ammo against the protesters in the Capitol.

Or the simple fact that Scott Walker never said that he wanted to strip collective bargaining rights from the public employee unions.

This was a classic overreach. Something you guys are generally pretty good at. Fortunately, most people are recognizing it for what it is and apparently, there is gonna be hell to pay at the polls for it.

I live in Reagan Democrat land and want to take this opportunity to thank Governor Walker for the outstanding work he has done for my party. It has been fun watching so many of my Republican leaning union friends have their epiphanies.

As for Prosser, he clearly made a bad decision. Saying a lot of people did the same doesn't change the fact that he made a really bad decision, and because of that, even more children were abused. Whether he should be forgiven for his poor judgment is up to the people of Wisconsin...not just the Merryfields. As noted, other children were abused too.


Mr. D said...


Who's patting themselves on the back?

Lotta tu quoque in your comment, which is disappointing.

I'm aware of the Cronon case. It's clearly payback and also clearly a case where Cronon should be aware that his email is fair game. Ann Althouse, also a UW professor, has talked at length about why Cronon should have known that any email on his university account was fair game. I wouldn't have pursued it, myself, but I have a hell of a lot less sympathy for Cronon than I do for the state senators who have faced death threats in Dane County where the district attorney doesn't even put the person making threats in jail.

I was not aware that if a candidate doesn't mention a specific course of action on the trail, it means he cannot pursue the matter later on. That will be a highly useful standard to apply to Democrats later on. Thank you for that.

We've been through the matter of priest abuse before. We did not understand the landscape of the abuse in 1979. Prosser trusted a bishop to do the right thing. In 2011, I wouldn't. But applying the 2011 standards to 1979 events is anachronistic.

As for what the Merryfields want, I'll have another post on that later on.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

Rich, is it overreach because donks are throwing a hissy fit and getting all violent? Good gracious, we're going to have to overreach a helluva lot more than Scott Walker to save this country from financial disaster. Your union friends are going to have aneurisms or they are going to see through your side's demagoguing. It'll be easier for everyone if they go with choice number two.

Mr. D said...

Rich, I meant to comment on this point of yours as well:

I live in Reagan Democrat land and want to take this opportunity to thank Governor Walker for the outstanding work he has done for my party. It has been fun watching so many of my Republican leaning union friends have their epiphanies.

If these folks begin supporting Democrats again because of this course of events, and the Democrats are able to keep the rotten edifice they have built by shouting down and threatening their opposition, so be it. But the epiphany you claim they are having now will be nothing compared to the epiphany they will have in years to come when the money runs out.

Bike Bubba said...

To me, it's worth noting that the left is betting that a liberal justice will decide that it is unconstitutional to write a law that revokes a previous, constitutional state law.

The legal gymnastics to come to that conclusion ought to be priceless.

Anonymous said...

Rich, what is everyone going to do when the money runs out. That will be one hell of an epiphany. You so good at criticizing but you are very poor at offering solutions. What say you regarding budgets and deficits?

Mr. D said...

Rich, what is everyone going to do when the money runs out.

Blame the Republicans, anon. What else could they do?

W.B. Picklesworth said...

I don't want things to fail, but sometimes I despair. It seems like there are simply too many people committed to illusion. I don't think Rich is any fool, but maybe it just hasn't hit home for him yet. We are in trouble and the status quo just isn't going to cut it. That isn't a partisan point. That's just reality.

Gino said...

tax the rich and stop corporate welfare.
and make everybody pay their fair share.