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Wisconsin to investigate priestly sexual abuse of minors

The review by Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has been prompted in part by victim’s suicide in 2020.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette chronicled the sexual abuse case of Nathan Lindstrom, who said he was molested by three Norbertine priests in the 1980s. Lindstrom took his own life in 2020, prompting calls for an investigation by the State of Wisconsin. (Screen capture: Green Bay Press-Gazette)

MADISON, Wisconsin — A 45-year-old man’s 2020 suicide decades after he was allegedly sexually molested by three Norbertine priests is at least part of the impetus for a forthcoming Wisconsin attorney general’s investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul notified Wisconsin’s five Catholic dioceses and two independent religious orders of priests that his office will launch an investigation of priestly sexual abuse of minors. The investigation was first disclosed April 22 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, based on a letter the newspaper said Kaul sent to Wisconsin bishops.

Representatives of the dioceses will meet with Kaul April 26 to discuss the investigation. “I agree with the many survivors of clergy abuse, and those who support and have advocated for them, that a review by our office is necessary to provide accountability and, ultimately, healing,” Kaul wrote. “I hope you will welcome that review.”

Wisconsin will join nearly two dozen other states that are or have conducted investigations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The most prominent was done in Pennsylvania, which reported in 2019 on a two-year grand jury investigation that found credible allegations against more than 300 priests for the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 minors.

Gillian Drummond, director of communications for the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office, said the department “will be making an announcement next week.” Survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or faith leaders can call the Office of Crime Victim Services [(877) 222-2620], for assistance, Drummond said.

More than 170 Wisconsin Catholic priests have had credible allegations of sexual abuse lodged against them between 1950 and 2021, according to records from the dioceses and two religious orders. This includes nine priests in the Diocese of Madison, 26 in the Diocese of La Crosse, 48 in the Diocese of Green Bay, 48 in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 24 priests from the canonry of St. Norbert Abbey, and 20 Society of Jesus (Jesuit) priests who served in Wisconsin.

Kaul’s investigation comes on the heels of a public demonstration in March near Green Bay by supporters of Nathan Lindstrom, a 45-year-old father of three who said he was sexually molested by three priests from St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin. Lindstrom took his own life on March 9, 2020, despondent that the Norbertines had cut off the $3,500 monthly support provided him after his parents complained of sexual abuse they said he endured while a student at a Green Bay Catholic high school.

Lindstrom worked with his brother and other students at St. Norbert Abbey, the American headquarters of the Premonstratensian order, formally known as the Canons Regular of Premontre, founded in 1120 by St. Norbert of Xanten. The Norbertines operate St. Norbert College near Green Bay and also serve parishes and parochial schools in the Diocese of Green Bay.

Lindstrom told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that he was molested by three Norbertine priests at the abbey in the late 1980s. The priests regularly invited high school boys to the abbey’s swimming pool and hot tub. The sexual abuse took place in the hot tub, nearby showers and in a priest’s vehicle, the newspaper reported. The abuse caused Lindstrom lifelong anxiety and panic attacks that made it difficult for him to work and function normally. He disclosed the molestation to his parents in 2004. His parents confronted the abbott at St. Norbert’s in 2009 and asked that the Norbertines provide financial support of $3,500 a month. That financial support began in June 2009 and continued until May 2019, totaling $420,000 over the nearly 10-year period. No written agreements were made or legal papers filed, the newspaper said.

On the one-year anniversary of Lindstrom’s suicide, a group of supporters founded Nate’s Mission, a chapter of Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA). The group lobbied public support for Kaul to launch a statewide investigation of clergy sexual abuse. It said Lindstrom’s family met with Kaul in early March 2021.

“Survivors in Wisconsin have suffered and struggled for years urging justice officials to finally take action to protect children in our faith-based institutions,” said Peter Isely, program director for Nate’s Mission and a founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “We fully expect on Monday when church officials meet with Attorney General Kaul that they will bring with them every document and piece of evidence concerning the institutional cover-up of these crimes, present and past.”

The Norbertines declined to comment on Lindstrom’s abuse allegations or the forthcoming state investigation, spokesman Montie Chavez said. Representatives from Wisconsin’s five Catholic dioceses said they knew little about the investigation.

“We are interested in learning more about what the attorney general is pursuing with this inquiry so we can formulate a response,” said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. “We continue to reach out and pray for abuse survivors and as always, we trust in God’s providential care for His Church.” Justine Lodl, communications director for the Diocese of Green Bay, said the chancery received a letter from Kaul’s office regarding Monday’s meeting. “We expect to learn more at that time,” she said.

Jack Felsheim, communications director for the Diocese of La Crosse, said the diocese “is awaiting the details concerning the attorney general’s inquiry so we might make an informed response.” Brent King, spokesman for the Diocese of Madison, said any statement on the investigation would come after the April 26 meeting at the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Daniel Blank, director of administrative services for the Diocese of Superior, said there would be no comment until after the meeting.

Each of Wisconsin’s five dioceses has an independent board that review allegations of sexual abuse and other priestly misconduct. The Diocese of Madison in 2019 hired Defenbaugh & Associates to conduct an independent review of its records to make sure no abuse cases were missed. The same firm, headed by a former FBI agent, is doing a review of records at the Diocese of Superior. The Superior diocese is the only Wisconsin diocese that hasn’t published a list of priests with substantiated allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor. A list is expected by the end of 2021. The Norbertines also asked Defenbaugh & Associates to review its records — the second such review since 2019.

The lists published by the other four dioceses vary in the amount of detail provided. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee provides the most detail, including a summary of each priest’s assignments and the allegations against them, plus extensive backup documentation. The supporting documents run into the hundreds of pages in some cases. Among the 48 priests listed on the archdiocesan web site, abuse allegations stretch back as far as the early 1930s.

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

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