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.