WINONA, Minn. (WCCO) — A Minnesota woman calls it the untold story in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Jeanie Hansen says a priest beat and raped her when she went to college in Winona. Other women came forward with similar claims against the same man but the priest was never publicly named as doing anything wrong.
“I grew up looking to the church when you needed help. That’s what the church was about,” Hansen said.
Sunday Mass always marked the start of a new week for Hansen. Hansen grew up in southern Minnesota, went to an all-girls Catholic high school, settling on a similar setting in Winona for college.
She pursued a career in religious administration at St. Teresa’s in the late 70s. She met Father John Surprenant, the chaplain at the college, in her second year.
“You have to understand he was one of the only men on campus. Girls would hang on every word,” Hansen said.
Hansen would see him every day at noon Mass. She says Father Surprenant seemed to enjoy her company.
“Now I look and I think he kind of was grooming me and giving me attention,” Hansen said. “Nobody thought anything about going to his house,” she added.
It’s why her junior year when she was 20 years old, Hansen stopped by one winter night. She remembers having trouble with her boyfriend back home at the time. She says Surprenant told her she struggled receiving male affection as he started to kiss her.
“I knew it wasn’t right. I knew a priest shouldn’t be doing that,” Hansen said.
Hansen left, with what she could only describe as a splice in memory.
“I was very concerned about that splice because I knew there was more to the story,” she said.
It wasn’t until 25 years later when the news surfaced about the sex abuse scandal in Boston that Hansen started therapy.
When, she says, she started to put together those missing pieces.
“Father John had taken me up the steps to his bedroom and had locked the door,” she recalled.
Hansen says he beat, choked and sexually assaulted her that night.
“He told me that if I didn’t let him do what he wanted me to do I’d never see my family again,” she said.
Bob Schwiderski has spoken out for clerical abuse victims for decades in Minnesota as state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the number of people that were abused as adults would surpass those that have been abused as children,” he said.
A survivor himself, Schwiderski put together a list of 336 names of alleged abusers published in court documents or news reports. Not only Catholic priests, but anyone who used religion to make contact with victims.
“If the adult survivors would step forward, step out of the shadows like what we’ve seen with the children who were abused, the numbers would shock people,” he said.
Mike Finnegan is an attorney with a firm at the forefront of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
“It’s very common and there’s a real problem that hasn’t been exposed yet,” he said.
Finnegan says Jeff Anderson Associates represents about 350 people who say they were abused as minors by clergy members and just five clients who say they were abused as adults.
Finnegan is convinced that number would grow if Minnesota law read differently.
Three years ago, Minnesota enacted a law that gave child sex abuse victims a window to file civil lawsuits no matter when the abuse happened. That expired in May. But, if you’re 18 or older, the clock starts ticking from when the abuse last happened. Survivors get six years to take civil action or up to 10 years for a criminal case. Victim advocates now want the legislature to give adults more time to finally come forward.
After finally sharing her story with the Winona Diocese in 2002, it paid for a few years of Jeanie Hansen’s therapy.
“I never wanted to punish the church. I just wanted help to heal,” she said.
But she says she was told by the Diocese she was taking too long to heal, so Hansen’s been paying herself ever since.
“I often said that I felt like I was being raped all over again by how awful the church treated me,” Hansen said.
St. Teresa’s closed in Winona in 1989, the same year Father John Surprenant died. Despite holding the secrets for so long, Hansen says she’s lived a happy life with a supportive family. Going public now with the hope it helps others do what she couldn’t for decades.
“Maybe if I say something other women would have the courage to come forward,” Hansen said.
More than 850 people came forward in all as part of the Child Victim’s Act. Five hundred were claims made against Minnesota Catholic clergy.
A civil lawsuit was filed against Surprenant for forcing a female teenager to have sex with him for three years, and exploiting other students. It was the second case in 1987 charging the Winona Diocese for negligently failing to prevent a priest from committing sexual abuse.
Ben Frost is the director of public relations for the Diocese of Winona.
The following is a statement:
“The Diocese of Winona takes every accusation of pastoral abuse seriously and is willing to offer pastoral assistance in every case. Cases are evaluated on an individual basis to determine what assistance is appropriate. Out of concern for all of those involved, the Diocese does not publically comment on individual cases. The Diocese of Winona’s Review Board assists in making determinations and recommendations regarding pastoral assistance. The Review Board is comprised of religious and lay persons including mental health professionals. Our goal in the Diocese of Winona is to ensure the safety and protection of all of God’s people. We encourage anyone who has suffered abuse to immediately report the abuse to local authorities or our Victim Assistance Coordinator.”