MADISON, Wisconsin — The state’s attorney general on Tuesday launched a sweeping investigation of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, but he denied the state is singling out the Catholic Church for scrutiny.
“Our initial outreach was to dioceses and religious orders that are part of the Catholic Church, but we were very intentional in calling this clergy and faith leader abuse that we are focused on,” Attorney General Josh Kaul told reporters at a Wisconsin State Capitol press event.
“There are two reasons that we focused initially in our outreach on the Catholic Church,” Kaul said. “One is, as some folks here have reported, there have been over 160 cases disclosed by dioceses and religious orders, where they have identified priests as having been credibly accused of abuse. That’s a very large number, and reviewing that and getting to the bottom of that is critical. And then secondly, some of what we’re going to be talking about in this review process is historical. If there are active cases, we want to encourage people to report those.”
Kaul was joined by district attorneys from Dane, Milwaukee, Brown, and Douglas counties, where four of the five Catholic dioceses (Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay and Superior) are headquartered. The fifth, La Crosse County, will also participate in the investigation. Survivors and victim’s advocates also spoke at the event, but they all focused on sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests. There were no participating survivors of abuse by school teachers, coaches, or scout leaders. That fact rankles some officials.
“In the course of my research, I found that there is virtually no segment of society where adults intermingle with minors where this has not been a problem, beginning, sadly, in the home,” said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, in an open letter to Kaul. “Will you undertake a probe of stepfathers and live-in boyfriends? Trial lawyers have zero interest in doing so—there’s no money in it for them. Will you investigate all the clergy—probing all religions—or will you focus exclusively on Roman Catholic priests? Will you address public schools?”
Donohue cited a state survey in which one in five students said someone forced them “to do sexual things they did not want to do.” He also wrote about a USA Today study from 2016 that gave Wisconsin an ‘F’ grade for sharing misconduct information on public school teachers. He said Kaul’s investigation looks one-sided in its focus. Most of the offending Catholic clergy, he said, are either dead or no longer in ministry.
“The selective probing of old cases of abuse does nothing to further the cause of justice; it also smacks of bias,” Donohue wrote. “Moreover, given Wisconsin’s record in the public schools, it appears there is much that needs to be done to ameliorate current conditions. That is why I’m encouraging you to reconsider your plan.”
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, sounded a similar theme. “There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have not already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse,” Topczewski said in a statement. “We also do not understand the legal basis for the inquiry. We also question why only the Catholic Church is being singled out for this type of review when sexual abuse is a societal issue.”
“The Church has already voluntarily provided the names of perpetrators and has made the correctives necessary to do whatever is possible to make sure this can never happen again,” Topczewski said.
Kaul stressed that the Wisconsin Department of Justice wants to hear from victims of sexual abuse of minors, regardless of the setting or job function of the perpetrator. “I would encourage anybody who has evidence of sexual abuse, particularly of institutional coverup of any abuse but of any abuse generally, to reach out and to contact us,” Kaul said. “If we have significant evidence that there was any institutional involvement in concealing abuse or there’s any large scale abuse that warrants a Department of Justice review, we would take a look at that and make the appropriate decision.”
Wisconsin’s Catholic dioceses and religious orders that serve in the state have publicly identified some 175 priests who’ve had credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor lodged against them between 1950 and 2021. 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.
Several survivors of priestly sexual abuse spoke at the press event, saying the state investigation will bring needed transparency, accountability and justice that will allow victims to heal.
“Last year on March ninth, my family’s life was shattered. My husband, Nathan Lindstrom, took his life after living for over three decades with the torture of being sexually abused by multiple priests as a teenager,” said Karen Lindstrom. “I lost my husband. Our three young daughters lost their father. His siblings lost their brother and his parents lost their son. And we all lost a man of integrity who enhanced the world with his kind spirit and ethical heart.”
Nathan Lindstrom said he was molested by three priests of St. Norbert’s Abbey near Green Bay when he was in high school in the late 1980s. 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 their son with 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, according to an extensive investigation by the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Karen Lindstrom said state law enforcement involvement is important in cases of clergy sexual abuse. “We are here because victims like Nate need an avenue to justice, driven by the state and not from the inside of the very organization that abused them,” she said. “We are here because this issue is not about individual crimes. This requires the examination of the entire organization that has enabled the abuse of countless children. We are here because Nate said over and over again that he never wanted this to happen to another child.”
Patricia Gallagher Marchant recounted the trauma of being sexually abused by a priest from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Monona, Wis., when she was 7 and 8 years old. She said it took 20 years for her abuser to be laicized (removed from the clerical state). She said the Diocese of Madison hired four lawyers to protect its interests when she reported the abuse in 1991. Kaul’s investigation is an important step, she said, calling on Church officials to “come clean.”
“Confess your sins, be held accountable,” she said. “Make amends. Make amends. That’s how truth and reconciliation truly happens is make amends. This isn’t on our shoulders anymore. The institutional church, please, make amends, come clean, tell the truth, disclose all, so all of us can heal.”
Peter Isely, program director for the advocacy group Nate’s Mission and a founding member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called on everyone who has suffered sexual abuse by clergy to come forward.
“Right now what these prosecutors need is evidence. They need evidence, they need witnesses and they need proof,” Isely said. “Every survivor, every one of us is not just a victim, we’re also a witness. And the path to healing is from victim to survivor to witness. We as survivors have a public duty and responsibility to let law enforcement know in a safe and confidential way what happened to you, who did it to you, where that person might be right now, and anyone and everyone that was involved with the perpetrator that assaulted you.”
Representatives from several dioceses said they believed Kaul’s investigation would only involve a review of previous or historical cases of abuse of minors, but the attorney general made clear on Tuesday that he is also seeking information on new cases.
“First we will be requesting and reviewing documents produced by dioceses and religious orders,” Kaul said. “Secondly, we are asking anybody with knowledge of clergy and faith leader abuse, including the institutional response to that abuse, to contact us.” Anyone wishing to report sexual abuse of a minor should call (877) 222-2620 or visit the web site at supportsurvivors.widoj.gov.
“We strongly encourage anyone who knows anything to report,” Kaul said. “No detail is too small. If you’ve reported before, we’d like you to contact us. If you haven’t reported before, we would like for you to contact us. And if you know about abuse involving somebody who can’t report, we want to encourage you to report that abuse.”
Diocesan officials stressed the many steps taken over the past two decades, including outside review of priest records, extensive background checks, mandatory reporting policies, safe-environment training and independent review boards that investigate all claims of sexual abuse by clergy.
“The Diocese of Madison has worked vigilantly to take decisive actions to address sexual abuse, has worked closely with the appropriate law enforcement agencies and investigators, and has created and maintained a safe environment in the Catholic Church and our communities,” spokesman Brent King said in a statement. “…Efforts include performing 33,000 background checks, training 13,000 young people on maintaining a safe environment, meeting by bishops with numerous victim/survivors, creating a review board of mostly lay experts to review diocesan policies and cases, cooperating with annual compliance audits, and publishing those priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.”
Jack Felsheim, communications director for the Diocese of La Crosse, said the diocese “will examine the letter of requests from the attorney general when it is received. At that time, the Diocese of La Crosse will assess the statutory authority for the requests, as well as other considerations, like the confidentiality rights of those survivors of abuse whose privacy interests could be impaired by a release of sensitive information to a public agency.”
Kaul acknowledged that “many of the cases we’ll be talking about will be outside the statute of limitations.”
“We believe we can play a critical role in connecting victims with services and in helping them get a measure of accountability, even if the statute of limitations has passed,” he said.
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