Matt C. Abbott
January 28, 2006
Did hanged rapist kill Wisconsin priest?
By Matt C. Abbott

Some readers know I've been following and have written about the unsolved 1998 murder of Father Alfred Kunz, a canon lawyer and priest of the Diocese of Madison, Wis.

I recently received the following (edited) e-mail from John Cavanaugh, a retired Dane County deputy:

I know a person with a very violent background was in the area on the day of the [Father Kunz] murder. It's one of those 'very, very long stories.' This person is now deceased. His biological father tells me that he'd had contact with Father Kunz, that he'd asked him for money and was refused, so he 'had to rough him up.' This was the same terminology he used when he related another incident to his father: that he'd asked his grandfather for money, was refused and had to 'rough him up.'

This particular incident took place about eight years prior to Fr. Kunz's demise. The perpetrator was my nephew, the grandfather was my father. He nearly died as a result of his injuries.

My nephew had a history of violence toward women. He was incarcerated pending trial on charges of assault, kidnapping and more when he committed suicide. Previously he'd served time in state prison for assaulting another woman.

Last year, I found out the nephew made the Father Kunz-related 'confession' to his dad

and, once again, I notified the sheriff's office. This time they at least followed up a bit, contacting the dad. They told me what he'd been told by the nephew couldn't be construed as a confession, or words to that effect. I waited for many weeks to see how it would play out.

It didn't play out; it petered out. They seem content to ignore it. So I called my ex-brother-in-law (the biological father of the nephew) at which time he related the 'confession' story to me. I recorded the conversation. I notified the sheriff's office, again, and provided them with a copy of the recording. They told me they'd be in touch.

That's been almost four months ago. I have contacted the FBI and the Wisconsin Department of Justice and have been told, by both, that the Dane County Sheriff's Office is the agency handling the matter and to refer any information to them. I think they're waiting for me to 'fade away.'

That's not going to happen.

For what it's worth, I'm a retired Dane County deputy. Personality clashes with many

who are 'in power' in the sheriff's office today could very well be one reason for their

perceived failure to act. You'll just have to trust me on that one. And, I'm convinced

they are in no hurry to admit that perhaps they should have followed up on this information years ago.

John Cavanaugh's nephew was Joseph Cavanaugh, who had a history of violence and, possibly, mental illness.

From an August 7, 2002 article in the La Crosse Tribune, by Dan Springer:

"A La Crosse man accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and robbing his former girlfriend died in a La Crosse hospital Tuesday morning after he was found hanging in his La Crosse County Jail cell.

"La Crosse County Sheriff Mike Weissenberger said Joseph Cavanaugh, 43, was rushed to Gundersen Lutheran Hospital after he was found unresponsive Tuesday morning...."

In a subsequent (edited) e-mail, John Cavanaugh stated the following:

I'd suspected Joe was responsible for the attack on my father since day one. This incident occurred in 1990. My dad would, when asked, always deny Joe's involvement. I assume that was to protect not Joe, but me. Or perhaps both of us. Dad claimed to have no memory of the attack.

As further background, he was confined to a wheelchair. Meals on Wheels volunteer found him around noon lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen area of his apartment. He barely made it to the ER, where several deep lacerations were found on the top of his head. Recovery was very long, due mainly to massive blood loss. The EMTs originally thought he'd merely fallen out of his chair.

After initial exam at the ER, I called the Middleton Police Department to report an assault. Convinced of Joe's complicity, I told relatives in area to be very wary should Joe ever darken their door.

Fast forward to 1998. A cousin called to tell me (because of the above, earlier 'warning') that Joe had been to her house either that day or the day before, ostensibly to see her Mom, who was on her deathbed. He'd never visited before. This would be in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin a very short hop from Dane. I can't remember if she let him in or not, but he left without incident, either way.

He also stopped in the same town to see his sister who lived in Prairie du Sac at the time. She describes him as being 'very anxious this would have been the morning Fr. Kunz's body was found. I called the sheriff's office immediately, trying hard to emphasize how dangerous I believed Joe to be. The detective assigned to follow-up, as far as I know, did not make personal contact with Joe in regard to this.

I again contacted the sheriff's office and asked the Lieutenant in charge to reassign that portion of the case. No luck. I'd known the particular detective who was assigned and had absolutely no respect for her, either personally or professionally. Another story...

Joe's wife at the time says Joe received a call from the police and became very angry. After some time, he handed her the phone and told her to say he was home at the time of the murder. She says she would have said anything he told her to say, but won't come right out and say she lied, claiming time has 'blurred' it all. She also says he was in the habit of carrying a knife, or having one with him, almost constantly. A filet knife, I believe.

Fast forward again to April, 2002, and Joe is in jail in La Crosse for assault, etc. (He'd served time in prison earlier for assault.) When I found out about him being in jail, I once again called the sheriff's office. I talked to Kevin Hughes, whom I've known since the 70s, and told him there would never be a better time to lean on Joe about Father Kunz.

He emailed a reply that he was 'looking at' someone else quite closely, but 'might' drive up to La Crosse to see Joe.

August 2002. Joe's sister supposedly learns from her biological father that Joe stopped at his residence the day my Dad was assaulted and told him he'd 'had to rough him up.' I learn of this from Joe's brother, John, who lives in the La Crosse area. I think either Joe's brother or sister told Joe that now I know for sure of his involvement with Dad's assault. He hangs himself in the jail. Coincidence? I think not.

Spring 2005. I got a call from my sister (mother of Joe and his two siblings) saying that their dad had contacted the daughter telling her Joe had told him of 'having to rough up' Father Kunz. I really blew up.

I once again contacted the sheriff's office not in a very good mood. I finally got in touch with a Lieutenant of detectives who agreed to assign someone other than Kevin Hughes to follow up. As far as I know, these detectives made contact with Joe's father and widow, in addition to his brother. Whatever they were told by Joe's father caused them to deem that what he'd heard was 'not a confession.'

I'm not buying any of this, but have little choice other than to let them run with the ball. When nothing came of all this by fall I decided to call the dad myself. (He and my sister married in '59, had three kids, divorced. The kids were taken away by Richland County court and custody was awarded to my dad's brother and his wife. They later adopted all three of the kids and raised them.)

I'd not spoken with him since the '60s. He confirmed he'd told his daughter about the 'confession' regarding my dad in 2002, and the confession regarding Father Kunz in 2005. I once again reported all this to the sheriff's office.

John concludes:

I think Joe is responsible for the crime, as does his mother, his sister and brother.

Other sources familiar with the Father Kunz homicide case say the prime suspect was, and perhaps still is, the (former) teacher at St. Michael's School who found the priest's body. The teacher, who has never been arrested and charged, reportedly had a falling-out with Father Kunz.

Related links:

© Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic columnist with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication, Media and Theatre from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Management from Triton College in River Grove, Ill. He has worked in the right-to-life movement and is a published writer focused on Catholic and social issues. He can be reached at


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