Duped and Deluded

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a “delusion” is a false belief held without reservation – usually as a result of self-deception or mental disorder – and often leading to harm.

I came into contact with some people in the grip of a delusion when I wrote about a double murder in the small Wisconsin town of Hudson. The perpetrator was a young priest with a messiah complex. He hung himself when he was about to be arrested, and henceforth became known to his followers – who sensed Satan at work when they contemplated his fate – as “The Hanged Priest.”

During his priesthood The Hanged Priest had a coterie of admirers numbering in the dozens. Most of them just liked the way he celebrated the Mass – a lively, one-man show in Latin (pidgin-Latin, he couldn’t actually speak the language but he faked it pretty well), climaxed by a teary-eyed elevation of the Eucharist high above his head for a full two minutes. He wore a monk’s cassock during the performance, and often could be seen on the streets of Hudson in the same outfit.

The congregants who were wowed by his liturgical histrionics were referred to by the other parishioners as “kneelers”, because they knelt while the Host was elevated. A sub-group among the kneelers had all the earmarks of a cult. By the time I interviewed some of them it was well-known that the priest had committed two murders to cover up the fact that he’d been using his ministry to groom young boys for sex. According to investigators, several abused boys had been forcibly prevented from talking to the police by their parents. It wasn’t until those boys reached adulthood and asserted their right to tell the truth that the full facts became known.

I talked to the mother of two boys who were probably (the records are confidential) among his victims. She practically worshiped The Hanged Priest, and did everything she could to convince me that “this holy man” had been framed. She said allegations that he was a pedophile would be laughable if they hadn’t caused the poor fellow such misery, and proudly described how her sons went to night prayers and on fishing trips with him. Later, when an open hearing was held to present evidence of The Hanged Priest’s guilt, and put his motives on record, this same mom knelt at the courthouse door with a rosary in her hand, and shouted that everything the prosecutors and witnesses said were lies. Her husband was comparatively low-key, but just as deluded. “He did everything passionately,” he said of the priest. “Preach, hunt, fish, drink beer. He just reeked passion.”

Of course, he hid his real passion in plain sight, facilitated by a group of people so deluded that they sacrificed their own children.

The story of The Hanged Priest appears in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, an anthology of true crime stories I wrote, published by Calumet editions.