In pushback against AG inquiry, Wisconsin Catholics cite decades of church vigilance against abuse

By Kevin J. Jones for CNA

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Sulfur via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Denver Newsroom, Jun 10, 2021 / 17:04 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is citing decades of Catholic efforts to prevent sex abuse, along with judicial statements and reviews of Church documents, as among the reasons it is pushing back against a state inquiry into clergy abuse.

In April, Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul had announced the launch of an investigation into alleged sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses and at least three religious orders. Kaul said he planned to review reports of abuse by clergy and faith leaders “with support from district attorneys, survivor groups, and crime victim services professionals.”

In response, the Milwaukee archdiocese says that judges, civil authorities, and an outside firm have already reviewed their documents – multiple times – and a bankruptcy judge has declared no concern for public safety after reviewing abuse claims.

“Our assertion is the Church is being unfairly singled out by this investigation,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, told CNA on June 9. “We have accepted our past history and worked so vigilantly to correct how things are handled, but it’s the Church that is continually targeted.”

“Archdiocesan files have been reviewed multiple times over the past 30 years,” Topczewski added. “First by a retired Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge; then by civil authorities, including the Milwaukee County District Attorney; and also by an outside firm of former FBI agents; to make sure no allegations had gone uncovered.”

“Federal Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley stated after reviewing all the claims filed that ‘no public safety concern is present’,” Topczewski added.

Kaul portrayed his investigation as “an independent review” of reports of clergy abuse that aimed “to ensure that survivors of clergy and faith leader abuse have access to needed victim services, to help prevent future cases of sexual assault, and to get accountability to the extent possible.”

The Wisconsin Department of Justice said it would start by requesting documents and information from Catholic dioceses and religious orders, but also encouraged victims to report sexual abuse committed by any members of religious organizations.

The agency said that “although one of the goals of this initiative is to verify the accuracy of public lists of priests credibly accused of abuse, ultimately, it is up to the church to decide which names are included on their lists.”

Topczewski, however, suggested the inquiry’s focus will end up falling disproportionately on the Catholic Church.

“The investigation has been represented widely in the media as ‘an investigation into the Catholic Church,’ including during a Wisconsin Public Radio interview on May 10 featuring the Attorney General, who stated that his initial request for documents was only to Catholic dioceses and religious orders,” he said.

Topczewski contended that this specific request violates the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause prohibition against the “disfavoring of a particular religion.”

The archdiocese has pledged to provide its records in cases of new allegations made against living priests, he said.

“The archdiocese will voluntarily provide access to documents and information on any living individual against whom a new allegation is made. This is already our practice and, if there are any new prosecutable crimes, the Church will offer its assistance in seeking justice,” Topczewski said.

“There has been one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a diocesan priest since 2000. This reinforces the historical nature of these crimes and indicates that education and prevention efforts are effective,” he said.

Four of the state’s five dioceses, as well as the Jesuits and the Norbertines, have already disclosed the names of priests credibly accused of sex abuse. The Diocese of Superior is gathering its own list with the intent to publish it by the end of the year.

In total, 177 Catholic priests have been identified as credibly accused of abusing minors – though the incidents took place as far ago as the 1950s. Some of the accused priests themselves died decades ago.

The Milwaukee archdiocese’s attorney Frank LoCoco responded to the attorney general’s announced plans in a June 1 letter. LoCoco similarly emphasized Catholic efforts to investigate and prevent abuse, but also suggested the attorney general’s efforts were “unlawful” given that many records are under court seal.

LoCoco noted that the archdiocese has already made public on its website the documents and chronologies related to the clergy listed as credibly accused of abuse. He cited trends in sex abuse claims which indicate that sex abuse by clergy peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, then declined significantly.

Of the 578 claimants who filed claims against the Milwaukee archdiocese, 99% of them involved allegations that predate the year 1990, he said.

Topcziewski argued that the Catholic Church has taken effective action against sex abuse, and its recent record shows this.

“Over the past 20 years, no institution in the United States has done more to combat the evil of this societal issue,” Topcziewski told CNA. “We know there have been mistakes made in how some cases were handled in the past, but today the Church has become a model of how this issue is addressed, including oversight, safe environment and prevention.”

“The Catholic Church is the largest provider of Safe Environment programs in Wisconsin and this mandatory education means nearly 100,000 individuals have been trained to recognize potential abuse/abusers and have heightened awareness of this societal scourge,” he said.

LoCoco said that many of the archdiocesan records remain under seal due to both previous bankruptcy court proceedings and abuse survivors’ own decisions to file their claims under seal. The Office of the Attorney General received a copy of the relevant court order in 2011.

“Fewer than 5% of the claimants, a total of 28, filed their Proofs of Claim on the public docket,” LoCoco stated. “The remaining claims were filed under seal based on the Bankruptcy Court protections. Even today, these proofs of claim remain under seal and cannot be made public as required by the final, non-appealable order of the Bankruptcy Court.”

LoCoco cited an effort in 2012 to release some statistical information from the records “because certain lawyers such as Jeff Anderson and certain advocates such as Peter Isely had made irresponsible and untrue allegations that children were at risk within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”

During a bankruptcy court hearing which rejected these claims, former Chief Judge Susan Kelley said her review “shows there is no public safety concerns with those claims – none whatsoever. The claims are old, the claims are by these known abusers with very few exceptions.”

LoCoco said there have already been significant financial expenditures to investigate abuse in the Milwaukee archdiocese, as well as to find potential victims.

During the Chapter 11 proceedings, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee produced some 60,000 pages of documents for the lawyers representing abuse victims and the official committee of unsecured creditors, which then chose the documents to be made public. The document review cost the archdiocese some $600,000.

The archdiocese spent “several hundred thousand dollars” to provide notice to abuse survivors to file a claim before the Feb. 1, 2012 deadline established by the court.

Several lawyers representing abuse survivors, the archdiocese estimated, spent more than $1 million to find alleged victims.

Compliance with the attorney general’s request would involve “another six-figure expenditure of lawyers’ fees and untold staff hours for just the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” LoCoco said.

In a June 1 email to Catholics in the archdiocese, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee said the archdiocese would cooperate with any “proper” state investigation, including providing records related to any living priest accused of abuse.

“While the archdiocese has done a lot, we can and should do more, and that includes cooperating with the attorney general in any proper inquiry he might undertake,” Archbishop Listecki said.

“As such, we will once again voluntarily provide access to documents and information on any living individual against whom a new allegation is made. This is already our practice and, if there are any new prosecutable crimes, the Church will offer its assistance,” he said.

However, he expressed “significant doubt that the attorney general has the legal authority to conduct such an investigation,” and added that the archdiocese has “legitimate concerns that his inquiry is directly targeting only the Catholic Church.”

“We believe we have offered a way to provide what the attorney general has requested while continuing to walk with survivors, maintaining the Church’s rights and avoiding unnecessary expense,” he said.

In April the Madison diocese, the Green Bay diocese, and the La Crosse diocese noted their own reviews of records. The Superior diocese has hired an outside firm, Defenbaugh & Associates, to conduct an independent third-party review of clergy files. The diocese said it is “in the process of using the independent report to list the names of clergy against whom substantiated child sexual abuse claims have been made.”


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