Chad Travis recalled that he was 9 years old, strapped into a rig to heal his broken leg, the day he was sexually assaulted by a hospital chaplain in Merrill.
He was essentially immobile when the priest from the hospital's Holy Cross Chapel hung a tag on the door handle signaling that prayers were going on inside the room, then shut the door and abused him.
Travis didn’t tell many people what happened to him as a child in the late 1970s. But decades later in 2019, he testified at the former priest’s hearing alongside other men who were assaulted as children. Thomas Ericksen wasn't charged with sexually abusing him — that crime was reported to have happened in a different county from where prosecutors brought their case — but Travis took the opportunity to share his story during the sentencing hearing.
“I was so young that I remember I had an Incredible Hulk robe and a favorite stuffed animal,” Travis told the judge in Sawyer County. “This person I trusted preyed on the innocence of a boy attached to a hospital bed.”
Ericksen, who by 2019 had been stripped of his status as a priest, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. It was the end of a long journey for not only Travis, but for Steve Weix, who fought for years to get police to arrest Ericksen and prosecutors to file charges.
Legal justice was still possible for Travis and Weix decades after they were assaulted, because of a provision in state law that pauses the statute of limitations on sex crimes if an abuser leaves the state and does not return. But both men have struggled to get answers from the Diocese of Superior, which employed Ericksen long after the first allegations of sexual assault surfaced, and to persuade church officials to take ownership of what happened to them.
Weix likened it to a car crash, where the person responsible simply walks away without consequence.
“Things get better at times, but then you wonder if things will ever change, if anybody will ever be held accountable,” he said. “Are they ever going to take responsibility?”
Even Ericksen might have escaped responsibility if he had stayed in Wisconsin after abusing multiple children. The criminal statute of limitations expires for most victims of child sexual assaults when they turn 45, and they can't sue their abuser or the church after age 35.
Survivors of clergy abuse and their advocates are encouraged by a state Department of Justice investigation that will provide an independent review of allegations dating back decades. But they say justice won’t fully be realized until Wisconsin removes the statute of limitations for civil action in such cases, allowing victims to take their assailants or the organizations that protected them to court at any time.
A bill called the Child Victims Act would change the law and give survivors of childhood sexual abuse that power. But the measure faces an uncertain future in a divided Legislature — complicated further by a years-long effort to kill the legislation from lobbyists that include the Catholic church.
It’s been a struggle for survivors like Laurie Asplund, who was abused by a youth pastor for years in the 1970s. She’s been advocating for the Child Victims Act for 10 years, she said, as both a survivor and a therapist, and she hopes the tide will change and legislators will see the impact it could have for people like her.
“They can help us get started healing as survivors because part of the healing is getting some kind of justice and validation,” she said. “It would help the healing process for us walking wounded.”