|Bill Bricker listens to longtime friend Jim Foster as they await an extradition|
hearing for Bricker on Oct. 27 in court in Traverse City, Mich.
— Excerpts from an unsigned Feb. 23, 1995, page of notes among the Winnetka District 36 personnel records of retired teacher Bill Bricker.
Who wrote those phrases, arguably chilling and soulless? And under what circumstances, exactly? In disclosing them Friday, Tribune reporters Karen Ann Cullotta and Lisa Black called the first phrase — Could have 100 children abused — as inscrutable as it is potentially damning. How did they know there could be 100 children involved?
The page of handwritten notes erupts, suggestive yet mysterious, from two decades past. It cannot be read as a verdict on Bricker, who is now 94, under home confinement and receiving hospice care in Michigan. He is fighting extradition to Wyoming, where he has been accused of sexually abusing children in 1962, 1968 and 1985. Bricker has not been tried or convicted, and he says he is innocent. We leave adjudication to the courts.
The notes do, though, intensify the focus on Winnetka District 36, which likely is in the early stages of an ordeal that is years from resolution.
Institutions can emerge from such ordeals, but not without long processes of excavating internal documents and decisions, evaluating how administrators dealt with accusations as they arrived, providing assistance to those who report past abuse and setting protocols to handle future complaints of sexual abuse.
We've watched for 23 years as the Archdiocese of Chicago walked this path, occasional serious stumbles and all. Many critics never will forgive the administrative maneuvers — none more offensive than shuffling known offenders from parish to parish — of prior archbishops and their regimes. But the archdiocese has made substantial efforts to address its scandal and assist its victims.
In time we'll all be able to similarly evaluate the Winnetka school district's response to its unfolding crisis.
In 1992, the Winnetka Chamber of Commerce cited Bill Bricker's work as a teacher and Troop 18 Boy Scout leader in declaring him "Man of the Year." What the chamber evidently didn't know: At several points in prior decades, the Winnetka school district that employed Bricker had fielded accusations of inappropriate contact with its students.
The Tribune has identified at least 11 men and women who say Bricker molested them, with accusations dating to the mid-1950s. District officials evidently were aware of claims against Bricker as early as 1968.
Friday's story says it's unclear to what extent officials and law enforcement investigated those complaints. A school district attorney declined to name the author of the 1995 notes or explain the context. A former superintendent told the Tribune in October that he visited the Cook County state's attorney's office after the district received one complaint in 1993. Details are sketchy, but it appears that nothing came of that outreach.
|A younger Bill Bricker|
Winnetka District 36 will learn from this crucible experience, as the Archdiocese of Chicago already has, and as other institutions can when abuse accusations arise. After reading about the 1993 complaint against Bricker, we reimagined the case as if the district had followed the protocols that, by that year, the archdiocese already had in place:
If all went according to plan, District 36 officials would have reviewed Bricker's prior record, initially evaluated the allegations, offered assistance to whoever had alleged the abuse, and reported the case to civil authorities for investigation and potential prosecution.
We wish peace for those who say they were abused, whether by clerics, educators, parents or anyone else. And from District 36 officials past and present, we ask ownership of the crisis, accountability for whatever occurred, and transparency with the public as they examine allegations and past performance.
The ultimate purpose of this ordeal is the protection of children. Getting to justice won't be easy. Nor should it be.
Winnetka is an affluent village of about 12,000, 20 miles north of Chicago center on the shores of Lake Michigan.