updated 11/12/2007 6:42:34 PM ET 2007-11-12T23:42:34

A 79-year-old Roman Catholic nun pleaded no contest Monday to indecent behavior with a child for alleged sexual encounters with two male students at a church convent and school where she was principal during the 1960s.

The nun, Norma Giannini, and her attorney left the courthouse without comment after entering the pleas in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on the day her trial was to begin.

Giannini faces a maximum 10 years on each of two counts when sentenced Feb. 1.

“She decided to do the right thing,” said her attorney, Nikola Kostich. “She didn’t put the victims through a trial.”

Kostich said she also changed her plea because of concerns about possible lawsuits. A trial could have provided a record that could have been used in such lawsuits, though none has been filed, he said.

According to the criminal complaint, the two men told authorities they had dozens of sexual encounters with Giannini, including intercourse, while attending St. Patrick’s School.

Both victims attend hearing
Both of the students — James St. Patrick, now 53, and Gerald Kobs, now 55 — attended the hearing.

St. Patrick said afterward that he began abusing alcohol and drugs after the abuse and did so for 35 years. He and Kobs “built up the courage over the years” to come forward, he said.

Kobs expressed relief at the nun’s plea.

“It’s very hard to describe. It took so long,” he said. “It’s close to the end for us, and I can’t wait for sentencing.”

The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual assault, but the two men said they wanted to speak out.

Kobs said the nun told him in 1965, when he was 13, to open the buttons of her habit, but he was shaking so badly he could not do so. He said she then unbuttoned her clothing and had him touch her breasts, the complaint said.

The first incident was followed by 60 to 80 others, including two involving sexual intercourse, it said.

St. Patrick said he had sexual contact with the nun more than 100 times, beginning when he was in seventh grade. At least one incident involved sexual intercourse, the complaint said.

No plea bargain, official says
Assistant District Attorney Paul Tiffin said he had not yet decided on a sentencing recommendation and declined to comment further. The change of plea was not part of a plea bargain, Kostich said.

Giannini, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, went on to work in Illinois from 1970 to 1994.

Sister Betty Smith, regional president for the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, has said the nun received extensive counseling at a St. Louis treatment facility after the order “learned of the situation” during the 1990s.

Giannini, who lives with other Sisters of Mercy in a Chicago suburb, has been closely monitored and separated from minors since then, Smith said. The nun has been retired from active work for five years because of failing health, she said.

“We regard this situation as tragic for everyone involved,” Smith said.

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