JEFFERSON — The trial of a former Fort Atkinson priest charged with molesting an altar boy 13 years ago got under way in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Monday.
The Rev. William A. Nolan, 66, formerly of Madison, has pleaded not guilty to six felony counts of sexual assault of a child under the age of 16 that allegedly occurred while he was serving at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Atkinson from 2002-07 and for some years beyond.
If convicted, Nolan faces a maximum sentence of 40 years for each count.
The alleged victim, now 26, alleges that the incidents of assault began in February 2006 and occurred over a five-year period when he was ages 13-17. He told authorities that the alleged contact between them occurred more than 100 times.
Monday’s trial before Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge William Hue began with jury selection and ended with opening remarks from Assistant District Attorney Brookellen Teuber and defense attorney Jonas Bednarek.
Jury selection began with a packed courtroom of potential jurors, with the pool eventually whittled down to a 15-member jury of six women and nine men.
Bednarek dismissed four potential jurors because they previously had been “profoundly impacted” by sexual assault and said that they could not look at the case in an impartial manner.
During her questioning of the jury pool, Tueber asked members whether they were familiar with a number of public figures who had been impacted by the #MeToo movement — a social media trend involving mostly women reporting they had been sexually harassed, abused or assaulted by men in powerful positions.
Teuber also asked the potential jurors if they were familiar with former Michigan State University Doctor Larry Nassar, actor Kevin Spacey, pop musician Michael Jackson or comedian Bill Cosby. All have been accused of assault.
She noted, in a point that foreshadowed what she would say in her opening statements, that “people with good reputations can engage in bad actions.
“There’s a difference between public persona and personal life,” Teuber added.
Beginning her opening remarks, Teuber described the life and insecurities of the alleged victim.
She said he was adopted as a child from a foreign country and wanted more from his relationship with his parents. Teuber noted that he looked different than other children in his class due to his background.
She also said he was insecure about his sexuality.
“(The victim) knew from a really young age he was thinking more about the boys than he was thinking about the girls,” Teuber said.
She added that this insecurity was compounded by the fact he grew up in the Catholic faith and was attending a Catholic grade school.
“Because if you’re at a Catholic school as a strong practicing Catholic, well then, homosexuality is a sin,” Teuber said. “And so here (the victim is) struggling with his faith and his identity and as a Catholic child with a very strong Catholic family and attending a private Catholic school; well, this left him vulnerable, alone, and he was always living a lie. (The boy) didn’t feel like he ever got to be his authentic self.”
This insecurity, Teuber said, is what allowed Nolan to abuse the victim.
“Enter Father Bill Nolan, the charming, charismatic, good-looking, friendly, affectionate, warm-hearted Catholic priest that came to his school,” Teuber said.
Teuber said that the reported abuse began in February 2006 after the boy served at a funeral service at the church. She said Nolan offered the alleged victim a ride home and the two ended up in Nolan’s residence.
“He offered (the boy) a hug, but that lingered a little too long and a little too lingering, and then it led to a kiss, and then a longer kiss, and then to a trip upstairs to the bedroom where there would be the first of many assaults,” Teuber said.
The sexual encounters caused a lot of internal distress for the alleged victim, Teuber said, adding that he was a teenager dealing with questions about his identity and hormones and an infatuation with Nolan.
“He was conflicted between wanting it and knowing it was wrong,” Teuber said. “For (the victim), it was a perceived safe place to explore his sexuality with someone he loved and trusted.”
But the issue, Teuber said, is that children are unable to consent to sex.
“This case is not about an unwilling victim doing things he didn’t want to do, but he was a victim nonetheless,” she stated. “Because (the boy) was a child and a child cannot consent to sex with an adult.”
Teuber then moved on to that with which the defense eventually would counter — apparent inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s statements to police. She said this would not be an easy crime to prove because it was a delayed report, a child’s memory, and there are no witnesses or other incriminating evidence.
“What this comes down to is someone’s word that it took place,” Teuber said. “And what if the defense can paint that person as a liar?”
Teuber said people lie for all sorts of reasons, including the victim.
“Well, then, why would you ever believe him?” Teuber said. “He’s been lying about his background. He’s been lying about his family. He’s been lying about his financial circumstances, his grades, his intellect, all of those insecurities that he was trying so hard to keep out of the public eye.”
However, she added that even the parents in the jury box likely lied to their children about things such as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. She said that people tell lies all the time and the lies of the alleged victim were why Nolan targeted him in the first place, Teuber said.
“The predator gets to say they’ve created the perfect defense because the victim is a liar,” Teuber said. “And who are you going to believe? The liar? Or the pillar of the community?”
But when Bednarek addressed the jury, he argued that these lies and inconsistencies matter.
“This isn’t about Santa Claus,” the defense attorney said.
Bednarek said the victim’s statements to police changed and were proven wrong often. He said the victim told police one encounter happened Restaurant in Janesville — except there isn’t a Denny’s in Janesville.
Bednarek said there were inconsistencies with whether the attacks happened at school, the dates of attacks and the locations of the attacks.
He also said he has a number of witnesses to dispute the victim’s accounts.
“You will not hear from one witness who heard or saw anything,” Bednarek told the jurors.
Bednarek also said an employee from the Wisconsin Department of Justice analyzed both the victim’s and Nolan’s telephones and computers and could not find one message or email between the two of them.
Then the defense attorney’s opening argument turned to the more graphic aspects of the crime. Bednarek said the victim was asked to describe Nolan’s body.
“(The boy) was asked at one time to describe Bill Nolan’s physical features,” Bednarek said, noting that the boy mentioned the size of the priest’s genitals and that he had a hairy chest.
But, the defense attorney said, Nolan has a very unique birthmark on his groin that the victim would have seen had he been performing oral sex on him.
“You know what else he has?” Bednarek asked. “He has a big old birthmark right there. Never mentioned. You know why? He didn’t know, because he never saw it.”
Bednarek also said there is another unique aspect to Nolan’s body that he would not share until the victim testifies later this week.
“It’s going to be a hard week,” Bednarek said. “But it’s got to get done to show the stories (the boy) is making up about Bill Nolan.”
Nolan’s trial was scheduled to continue Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Nolan’s desire to enter seminary came at age 26, after heart surgery.
By that time he already had graduated from Edgewood College in Madison with a bachelor’s degree and was a successful businessman managing a hotel in Madison.
Nolan originally was ordained in 1985 and began serving as an associate pastor at St. Henry Catholic Church in Watertown. He subsequently was assigned as an associate pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Madison.
He also was assigned to St. John Vianney in Janesville. And just prior to his time at St. Joseph’s, Nolan is believed to have served a parish in Cambridge.
His tenure at St. Joseph’s from 2002-07 came during a tumultuous time in the parish as a decision was being made whether to move from the longtime site at the corner of North Main Street and Madison Avenue to a new location, subsequently on Endl Boulevard.
Nolan took early retirement in 2007, citing his heart disease and interest in caring for his own father.