JEFFERSON — A Jefferson County jury on Friday found a former Fort Atkinson priest not guilty of molesting an altar boy more than a decade ago.
After Judge William Hue read the verdict of not guilty in the trial of former St. Joseph Catholic Church priest William A. Nolan, the packed courtroom erupted with cries of “God is good.”
Nolan had been accused of molesting a middle school-aged altar boy while he served at St. Joseph’s church around 2007. The jury of three women and nine men acquitted him of five charges of sexual assault of a child under 16, each of which carried a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.
At the end of the week-long trial in which both the alleged victim, now a 26-year-old California resident, and Nolan testified, the jury took four hours to decide the 66-year-old priest’s fate.
“Very, very stressful,” is how Nolan described the trial. “I knew I was telling the truth. And I knew there were gaps and there were so many inconsistencies with the accuser’s stories, and I felt that would eventually be discovered.”
During the trial, defense attorney Jonas Bednarek was able to poke holes in the alleged victim’s testimony and the state’s case.
“I don’t believe any reasonable view of the evidence supports his claims,” Bednarek said in his closing remarks.
Bednarek was able to show the jury there were discrepancies with the state’s timeline by comparing what the accuser told police in his initial reports and what he testified to at court.
“This doesn’t make any sense logistically,” Bednarek said. “Does this make sense? I don’t think so.”
But, the most important piece of evidence Bednarek presented perhaps was Nolan himself. The accuser had told police that Nolan had a hairy chest and gave a vague description of Nolan’s genitals, but didn’t provide any other details.
“This case is about anatomy at the end of the day,” Bednarek said in his closing statement. “I challenge (Assistant District Attorney Brookellen) Teuber to … explain to you how somebody who supposedly had sexual contact of various flavors over a hundred times can’t tell you about that anatomy. One time? Maybe. Twice? Possibly. One hundred times? Not a chance.”
But in trial, Bednarek said that if the accuser ever had seen Nolan naked, he would have noticed scars on Nolan’s chest and leg from open heart surgery, as well as a 12-millimeter skin tag near his groin.
“That is the most important thing,” Bednarek said. “I’m not a terribly religious man, but something tells me there’s a reason that skin tag was there.”
Teuber had tried to show that the accuser’s testimony was true by reminding jurors of the strange power of memory in their own lives. She connected the testimony of all the witnesses and the details they might or might not have forgotten to the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America.
Teuber said she has very specific memories about where she was and what she was doing on that date, but other details have been lost to time and other anniversaries come and go without notable memories being formed.
“We all look at life events from very different perspectives,” Teuber said in her closing remarks.
This point was to show the jury that memory is a funny thing and just because the accuser might have missed some dates and locations, he still was telling the truth.
What it came down to, Teuber said, is whose memory to believe.
“There are only two people who know what went on behind closed doors and in private spaces,” the assistant district attorney stated.
Outside the courtroom following his acquittal, Nolan said the memory of the ordeal will stick with him.
“You know, I’m a Catholic priest and I’m supposed to forgive, and I think I can do that,” Nolan said. “But I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the way (the accuser) ruined my life.”
Nolan thanked all his family and friends who filled the courtroom to support him during the trial. Many of those supporters were overwhelmed with emotion after the verdict was read.
“Completely overjoyed that truth and justice prevailed in this case,” Nolan’s sister Janet Masters said in describing her feelings after the verdict. “Anyone that knows my brother, Bill, knows that he would never be capable of any act like this. I think the evidence that was presented made that so crystal clear.”
Masters said she was glad her brother could start getting a sense of normalcy back in his life.
“It doesn’t take away the hell (Nolan) has been through the last 16 months,” Masters said. “But at least he can start his life over. You saw all the supporters in this courtroom, people that know Bill know he’s the most wonderful, selfless man and he didn’t deserve this. I’m so glad he’s free and can just move on from this.”
The four hours during jury deliberations, waiting to hear her brother’s fate, that would happen to her brother felt like forever, Masters said.
“You sit here for hours waiting, and you start to worry,” Masters said. “But when I heard the ‘not guilty,’ oh my God, he and our family have been through hell dealing with these false accusations. Then to finally have him be vindicated, I can’t even really tell you the feeling of relief and joy I felt at that moment.”
Nolan said he was going to begin the steps to be taken off administrative leave by the Diocese of Madison and that he hopes to serve as a priest again.
“I’d like to be able to get back to ministry,” Nolan said. “Just to be able to help out where help is needed.”
Teuber was not immediately available for comment after court was dismissed.
Meanwhile, Nolan was 26 — the same age as his accuser is today — when he decided to enter the seminary. He already had undergone heart surgery.
He also 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.