In January, 1987, a mother reported to the pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish, Sheboygan, where Burns was associate pastor, that her son had been fondled when he slept overnight with Burns. The pastor and the mother confronted Burns who admitted physical contact but denied sexual contact. The pastor reported the incident to Sheboygan police.
Two detectives investigated. The mother asked that the matter be left in the hands of the Church and did not want further police involvement. Burns was to pursue counseling. In 1992, Burns pleaded no contest to a second-degree sexual assault charge involving a teenage boy. He was found guilty of that offense by Sheboygan County Circuit Judge Gary Langhoff, who dropped two other counts of the same charge as requested by the district attorney as part of a plea bargain.
Authorities said the count to which the priest pleaded no contest and one of the others involved 1988 incidents involving a boy then 13-years-old, and the other count involved a 1987 incident involving a boy then 14-years-old who came forward after the initial charges were filed. Burns admitted in court that the other two incidents took place. The judge, who ordered a pre-sentence investigation and did not immediately schedule sentencing, could consider all three charges in sentencing.
A charge of second-degree sexual assault carries a maximum penalty of a 10-year prison term and $10,000 fine in Wisconsin. He was incarcerated for 9 months in Milwaukee County with work-release privileges, was to continue counseling, and pay for victim’s therapy costs. He was placed on probation for 10 years.
In 1992, Burns was restricted from ministry. In 1993 canonical options regarding Burns’ status were reviewed and Burns sought canonical counsel. Burns was advised to seek voluntary laicization and was offered a severance package of $25,000 to transition from the priesthood.
In 1995, Burns submitted a petition for voluntary laicization to the Vatican. Father Connell visited the Vatican congregation in 1995 to present the case. The Vatican initially refused to consider the case because of Burns’ age and their practice not to grant laicization for clergy under age 40. Continued requests for laicization were made, despite his age issue, since Burns’ case was different.
Laicization was granted in 1996. In 2002, Burns’ probation was revoked because of violations about contact with minors and he was returned to prison.
This narrative is based on facts contained in documents related to this Diocesan priest offender.
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