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Reality Check: Ad Attacks Prosser Over Child Molester Case

Published On: Mar 30 2011 07:19:44 AM CDT
Updated On: Mar 30 2011 09:42:22 AM CDT

The Wisconsin Supreme Court race has brought interest groups out against the candidates.

These groups are using old but controversial cases to sling mud.

In this "Reality Check," WISC-TV looked at an ad running against incumbent Justice David Prosser.

The liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee, which is funded by many statewide unions and even Democratic campaigns, is running an ad claiming that Prosser turned a blind eye to a child molester.

"A priest sexually abuses children for 30 years across Wisconsin. A mother tells District Attorney David Prosser her two young sons were sexually assaulted. What does Prosser do? Prosser refuses to prosecute. (He) doesn't even ask the police to investigate," the narrator says in the TV ad.

A WISC-TV analysis found this to be misleading.

Prosser was district attorney in Outagamie County in 1978, when a woman named Sharon Merryfield did in fact come to him with allegations her sons Troy and Todd had been sexually abused by the Rev. John Patrick Feeney, a priest in Freedom, who is shown once during the ad.

Prosser did investigate but he maintains the evidence then wasn't strong enough to convict and a trial would have been "emotionally challenging" for the two boys, ages 14 and 12.

What Prosser did not know at the time was that Feeney had any history of molestation, which the ad implies.

A 2002 investigation uncovered this history and stronger evidence of sexual assault. Feeney was convicted and sent to prison for 15 years.

"Instead, Prosser meets with the bishop. To avoid scandal, they send the priest to another community and the assaults continue," the ad says.

WISC-TV found this needs clarification.

Prosser said he did go to the bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, demanding the priest no longer be allowed to serve in the parish and get treatment -- not be transferred.

But documents released in a later civil case show a letter written to a diocesan official by the bishop in 1978.

"As is usual in such cases and out of respect for the position of the church, and in order to prevent unnecessary scandal, the DA came to see me merely to state he was pursuing this case," the bishop said in the letter.

The bishop went on to say in the letter: "I had to agree with the DA that the church would prefer to keep this out of the court and out of the public eye."

Feeney was sent to treatment, but not until after Prosser left the district attorney's office for a state Assembly seat.

In a candidate debate, Prosser attacked the ad.

"That ad is way over the top. It's sleazy beyond belief. The victim in that case from 33 years ago has said, 'As a victim I find the ad by the Greater Wisconsin Committee to be offensive, inaccurate and out of context,'" Prosser said in the debate.

It is true that one of the two victims in the case, Troy Merryfield, did release a statement condemning the ad. Merryfield had previously been quite critical of Prosser, saying he'd "dropped the ball" on the case. Now his statement says that if he lived in Wisconsin, he would vote for Prosser.

Thursday on "News 3 at 10," WISC-TV will take a look at an ad by another third-party group attacking challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg.

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