Diocese of Superior releases ‘abusive clergy list’
Former Rhinelander, Tomahawk priests named
By Jalen Maki
MMC staff, Tomahawk Leader
NORTHERN WISCONSIN – Most Rev. James P. Powers, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Superior, on Tuesday, Nov. 22 released the names of clergy with substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse.
The Diocese of Superior encompasses the city of Superior and Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Price, Polk, Rusk, St. Croix, Taylor, Vilas and Washburn counties in northern Wisconsin.
Powers said in a release from the diocese that the list of names is “the result of three separate clergy file reviews (including security consultant firm Defenbaugh & Associates), more than a year of meetings, multiple sessions with the Diocesan Review Board and much prayer and discernment.”
The list includes the names of 23 clergy that the diocese believes have been credibly accused of sexual abuse against minors, with allegations dating from 1940s through the early 2000s.
Multiple substantiated sexual abuse allegations were leveled against Alan Payne, who served as a priest in Rhinelander in the early 1970s. The list says Payne left or was removed from the ministry in June 1988 and is currently in the process of being laicized.
Also among the clergy listed is David J. Malsch, who spent several years at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Tomahawk from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Malsch was accused of sexually abusing boys in Superior and was convicted of child sex crimes in the 1990s and 2000s, including one conviction involving a Tomahawk youth.
Clergy credibly accused of child sexual abuse have also spent time in various capacities at parishes in Merrill, Catawba, Ladysmith, Park Falls, Rib Lake, Westboro, Winter and other communities throughout the diocese, according to the list.
David J. Malsch
A June 2019 Tomahawk Leader story detailed David J. Malsch’s history of sexual molesting young boys while serving with the Catholic Church.
Malsch was accused of sexually abusing three boys while serving at St. Patrick Church in Superior between 1979 and 1984. He was sent to a treatment facility in Minnesota for alcohol and sexual problems before being transferred to St. Mary’s in Tomahawk in 1986.
In March 1991, while Malsch was serving as an associate pastor at St. Mary’s, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation into allegations that Malsch had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old Tomahawk boy with learning disabilities that February.
According to a Nov. 3, 1992 Tomahawk Leader article, Malsch took the boy, whom he was counseling, to the Rib Mountain Travel Inn in Wausau, where Malsch “pressed against and grabbed the boy, served him a glass of rum and photographed the youth, at times while he was exposed.”
The abuse occurred in the swimming pool and a room at the motel, the story stated.
Father Jerry Harris, then-St. Mary’s pastor, and Father Phil Heslin, then-chief administrative officer of the Diocese of Superior, said Malsch had been relieved of his duties and was placed into treatment in May 1991.
Malsch, who was residing in Virginia at the time of his arrest, was extradited to Marathon County.
Malsch was charged with having sexual contact with a person who had not attained the age of 16, child enticement and misdemeanor sexual exploitation. Malsch pleaded no contest to the child enticement charge in Oct. 1993 and was sentenced to one year in jail and eight years of probation. The other charges were dismissed.
An Oct. 12, 1993 Leader article said a five-year prison sentence was imposed, but staid under the condition that Malsch did not violate the terms of probation. Under his probation, Malsch was prohibited from practicing as a priest or counselor, having contact with youths age 18 or younger without permission from his probation agent and consuming alcohol.
Malsch was also required to “undergo assessment, treatment and/or counseling to whatever extent the court deems necessary” and was prohibited from contacting the victim or the victim’s family, according to the article.
Malsch’s probation was transferred to Indiana at his request, where, at the time, he was on probation for a 1993 drunken driving conviction. He was extradited back to Wisconsin in Nov. 1994 after drinking violations, where he remained while awaiting proceedings for probation revocation.
A Wisconsin administrative judge found that Malsch had violated his probation, but rather than sending Malsch to prison, he released Malsch to community supervision in April 1995.
The Tomahawk victim and his family filed a civil lawsuit against Malsch that month. The suit also accused the Diocese of Superior, Diocese Bishop Raphael M. Fliss, Harris and Heslin of “negligence in allowing a priest with a history of sexual misconduct toward boys to serve at a Tomahawk church,” according to a Nov. 10, 1995 Chicago Tribune article.
Lincoln County Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Nolan dismissed all defendants but Malsch from the lawsuit, basing his ruling on a state Supreme Court decision in a separate case in June of that year that determined a church cannot be sued for the negligent hiring, training or supervising of priests who commit sexual assault. The case was dismissed in Dec. 2000.
Malsch’s probation was revoked in May 1997 after he sent a sexually explicit letter to an 18-year-old prison inmate. Malsch was sent to the Oshkosh Correctional Institution to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
Prosecutors initiated sexual predator proceedings before Malsch’s mandatory release date on Feb. 3, 1999. As part of a deal reached by Marathon County special prosecutor Kendall M. Kelley and Malsch’s attorney, Malsch was required to admit that he was a sexually violent person in exchange for a recommendation that he be released to Wounded Brothers Recon Facility, a treatment center for troubled former clergy in Robertsville, Mo.
Malsch was sent to the Missouri facility by Marathon County Judge Raymond Thums in Jan. 2001.
In an April 3, 2002 letter directed to “Fathers, Parish Directors and all Parishioners,” Fliss apologized for not looking into the accusations of sexual abuse against Malsch more thoroughly.
Fliss’s apology came one day after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Diocese of Superior moved Malsch from the Superior parish to St. Mary’s in Tomahawk after three boys in Superior accused him of molestation in the 1980s.
The revelation that the Diocese of Superior was aware of Malsch’s pattern of sexual abuse against young boys, and the Diocese’s subsequent inaction, were part of a larger scandal uncovered by the Boston Globe in Jan. 2002.
The Globe reported that priest John J. Geoghan had been transferred from parish to parish in Boston after child sexual abuse allegations were leveled against him. Following the Globe’s reporting, the Boston Archdiocese provided prosecutors with the names of over 80 priests accused of sexually abusing minors that it had withheld knowledge of over the previous 40 years.
The Globe reporting lead to a national, and eventually worldwide, crisis for the Catholic Church after widespread, systemic patterns of sexual abuse against minors and ensuing cover-ups within the church were exposed.
Federal authorities recovered 28 images of child pornography from Malsch’s room at the Missouri facility on Oct. 22, 2003. According to authorities, some were mailed from California, and Malsch had sent similar images to an individual in Pennsylvania.
On Nov. 7, 2003, Malsch was indicted by a grand jury for possessing child pornography.
Malsch pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography in federal court in St. Louis, Mo., in Feb. 2005. He was sentenced to nine years in federal prison on Dec. 9, 2005 and was fined $12,500.00.
Malsch began residing at a supervised release facility in Mauston, Wis., in Sept. 2011.
On June 19, 2019, Malsch was released from the Mauston facility and was residing in Gleason. A month later, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said he would be residing in Merrill.
Malsch died on May 20, 2022, according to the Diocese of Superior.
Bishop says diocese ‘committed to openness, transparency’
In the release from the diocese, Bishop Powers said he wanted to express his “deepest apology and sympathy to all victims, survivors and the family members who suffered with them.”
“While most of the allegations in the list are more than 30 years old, I know that the wounds caused by abuse are as fresh as if the abuse happened yesterday,” Powers stated. “I understand that the publication of this list may reopen those wounds, and I sincerely apologize. It is my hope and prayer that making this list public will bring healing.”
Powers said policies created over the past 35 years have put the Catholic Church on the right path to protecting children by background checking and training clergy, volunteers and all adult employees to recognize abuse and grooming behaviors of abusers.
He added the diocese is “committed to openness and transparency,” urging victims of clergy abuse to report their abuse to local law enforcement and to Kathy Drinkwine, diocesan coordinator of assistance at 715-718-1110, or email [email protected].
To view the full list of abusive clergy released by the Diocese of Superior, visit catholicdos.org/abusive-clergy-list.