By Andy Mannix
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By Olivia LaVecchia
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On a warm summer day nearly 40 years ago, Father David Roney, the widely revered parish priest in Willmar, took a sprightly six-year-old girl and her two brothers to a clear-blue lake outside of town.
After sending the two boys out on a long swim, the bespectacled, handsome clergyman, then in his late 40s, turned his attention to the brown-eyed girl with short hair sitting beside him. He put hisÊhand on hers, she recalls, guiding it inside his pants.
"You're God's chosen one," he told her. "He has a special job for you."
A few minutes later, after Roney's sexual urges had been satisfied, he told her something else: She must never, under any circumstances, tell anyone what had happened. If she told, he warned, God would show his fury by harming someone she loved. Roney pointed to the younger of her brothers as they swam to shore. "He's not a strong swimmer," the priest remarked.
It would take nearly 40 years for that little girl—now a gray-haired, overprotective mother of three—to come forward with her story. In 2005, she and four other women filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of New Ulm and their parishes, alleging not only that Roney repeatedly sexually abused them, but also that the diocese did nothing to stop him.
The mountain of documents constituting Roney's personnel file paints a deeply disturbing picture of a pedophile priest whose taste for young children went unchecked and unpunished for decades. And it doesn't end in Minnesota. According to a sworn affidavit secured by the women's lawyer, Roney spent his retirement years at the diocese's mission in Guatemala, where he took up with a prepubescent orphan girl whom he planned to adopt.
"Their attitude was, 'It's okay for him to abuse kids in Guatemala, because they probably won't say anything,'" Kathleen Stafford, an attorney representing the women in the suit, says of the church leadership. "The whole thing makes me sick."
David Roney, a square-jawed manwith a reassuring air of quietconfidence, grew up the second oldest of four in a strict working-class family in Depression-era St. Paul. His bookkeeper father and receptionist mother, neither of whom went to high school, had big dreams for their children.
Young David, bookish and bright, showed great promise. At age seven, he skipped second grade. As the youngest in his class all through school, Roney was also the smallest boy. As a consequence, he became cripplingly shy, he would write years later in a self-evaluation handed over in the lawsuit. Although he got good grades, Roney didn't make any close friends as a kid. He never figured out how to talk to girls, and despite a passion for baseball, he was always one of the last chosen for ball games. "I always felt kind of on the outside," Roney wrote.
As he hit adolescence, growing six inches in a single year, his ingrained shyness morphed into the suppression of his sexual urges, his self-evaluation makes plain. Aside from an awkward, fruitless attempt by his father to explain the birds and the bees, everything Roney learned about sex came from books. In 10th grade, the gawky teenager followed his few friends into the preparatory seminary.
From the occasional offhand joke, Roney knew that his fellow seminarians were sexual creatures, he wrote in his self-evaluation, but felt certain that "none were as bad as I."
Years later, reflecting on his decision to become a priest, Roney conceded that he didn't know why he'd done it. "Maybe it was inertia," he wrote, "maybe it was a genuine vocation but it wore out." Ordained in 1945, Roney would struggle with his spirituality throughout his life.
A kindly man with simple tastes,Bishop Raymond Lucker eschewed a house of his own to take up residence in the diocese's main pastoral center. It sits atop a hill on the outskirts of New Ulm, where he kept a vegetable garden.
In spring 1987, he received a startling letter. "I have prayed and agonized over this for at least five years," it began. In unsparing detail, the writer told the story of a day nearly 20 years earlier when her 13-year-old daughter was practicing the organ at St. Mary's Church in Willmar. Father Roney, the parish priest, walked over to the girl and exposed himself. It happened only once, the woman wrote, and Roney had never touched her daughter. Still, she felt "sick with loathing and confused emotions to hear that our pastor, friend, sacramental celebrant, confessor, and guest in our home could have subjected our daughter to this kind of behavior."
Lucker was staggered by the news. Roney, in his estimation, was one of his finest men: intelligent, capable, and always eager to serve his parishioners. Yet only two weeks later, Lucker got another letter even more disturbing than the first.
"This letter is long overdue," it began. "I've composed parts of it in my head many times in the last decade."
The writer was a 29-year-old woman from Willmar. As a girl of about 10, she wrote, she and her friend, having gone to church, found Roney standing near the organ. He called the girls over to him, and guided their hands inside his pants. "He wore no underwear," she wrote, and "if we tried to pull away and remove our hands, he held them there—until he decided we could remove them." Afterward, Roney took the girls to his office, offering them M&M's from his brandy snifter.
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