Accuser: Priest's past ignored
Eric Nathan Paino says diocese knew of problems with the Rev. Sigfried Widera when he transferred in 1976.

May 1, 2002

It was an older house. His room was upstairs. He still remembers the thud and groan of heavy footsteps, the dread of what they meant. "You could hear him," said Eric Nathan Paino. "You could hear him coming up the stairs."

Paino, 25, of Orange, filed suit against the Rev. Sigfried Widera as well as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Orange and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this week, charging conspiracy and fraud in addition to childhood sexual abuse. At least six others also have accused Widera of molestation.

Paino was 8 at the time of the alleged abuse, the summer of 1985. What's particularly outrageous, he said, is that the Diocese of Orange knew Widera had a "moral problem" with young boys when it allowed him to transfer from Milwaukee in 1976. The church didn't warn parishioners and permitted Widera to work with children.

"It has to stop," Paino said Tuesday in his lawyer's office. "The Catholic Church has to know that it cannot just transfer priests and transfer priests and not worry about an 8-year-old boy's life."

Widera was convicted of sexual perversion with a 14-year-old boy in Milwaukee in 1973 and placed on three years probation. A letter from the Archbishop of Milwaukee to the Bishop of Orange recommending the transfer said nothing about criminal charges, diocese spokeswoman Maria Schinderle said. Milwaukee told Orange only that Widera had "a moral problem having to do with a boy in school," that Widera was receiving treatment and that based on professional opinion, he posed "no great risk" to minors, she said.

"Today, we would not accept him," Schinderle said. "But this was 26 years ago. The professionals said he posed no great risk. That was the thinking at the time."

When more abuse allegations against Widera surfaced in 1985, the Diocese of Orange removed him from the priesthood. He now lives in Arizona and until recently worked for his brother, John Widera of Costa Mesa, who runs Tucson Container Corp., Kino Packaging and Kino Foam.

Paino, meanwhile, has bounced from job to job over the past decade, and believes the abuse has played a role. He and his wife, Shelly, are expecting their first child next month - a boy - and he hopes the suit brings him peace, encourages other victims to come forward and forces the church to change.

He remembers Widera roaring into the neighborhood on his motorcycle and giving candy to children. Widera had gotten very close to Paino's grandparents, and became a fixture at the Paino home in Yorba Linda during that summer of 1985. Paino's mother was trying to raise four children on her own, and the priest was a dinner guest several nights each week. After dinner, Widera would offer to go upstairs to tuck the children in and help them say their prayers. That's when the abuse occurred, Paino said.

It continued for months until he blurted to his mother, "I don't want father tucking me into bed anymore." She asked why. "Because I don't like the way he touches me," he said.

Paino's mother reported the abuse to the church, but not to police, and Widera was soon gone. "It seemed like it was taken care of," Paino said. "We never saw the priest again; that was taken care of. We never went to a Catholic church again; that was taken care of. As an 8-year-old boy, I thought it was taken care of. But as you get older, you think about it, and realize it's not taken care of."

His attorney, Katherine Freberg, has represented many victims of sexual abuse by priests. "The fact is, (Widera) can still wear the Roman Catholic collar, and that's what has us so concerned," she said.

"We want to ensure that these priests go to jail and are defrocked."