Milwaukee archdiocese questions need for attorney general's review of clergy abuse

The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. Credit: Sulfur via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. Credit: Sulfur via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee said on Tuesday that it is concerned that the Wisconsin attorney general’s planned review of reports of clergy and faith leader abuse could “re-victimize” abuse victims through renewed publicity.

“Although we will take a look at the specific details of the Attorney General’s request when it is received, we have concerns about the negative impact this could have on abuse survivors, because the publicity has the potential to re-victimize individuals,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, said April 27.

“There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hasn’t already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse. 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,” he added.

Topczewski said that “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.” 

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has announced a plan to review reports of clergy and faith leader abuse “with support from district attorneys, survivor groups, and crime victim services professionals.”

Kaul said that “victims, deserve an independent review,” and that it aims “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.”

A statement from the Wisconsin Department of Justice said it will “be requesting documents and information from dioceses and religious orders.”

The state justice department has added that while it “is starting with the Catholic Church in this initiative, victims are encouraged to report sexual abuse committed in any religious organization.”

It also stated 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.”

Once the review has been completed, the justice department intends to issue a summary report.

Representatives of the state’s five local Churches, and several religious orders, met with Kaul April 26.

The Diocese of Madison said April 27 that it “will review the Attorney General's upcoming request as soon as it is received. The Diocese of Madison takes the issue of sexual abuse of minors very seriously and based on its own, ongoing initiative remains vigilantly committed to providing healing to any victims and their families, and to fostering trust based on its diocesan safe environment policies spanning two decades.”

The Madison diocese also noted that “Defenbaugh & Associates, an independent security and investigation firm, headed by retired FBI agents, conducted an independent and comprehensive on-site file review over the course of months at the request of and with the full cooperation of the Diocese of Madison.”

It said it “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.”

The Diocese of Green Bay noted that "We understand that this is a review of past cases and does not imply that there are any new allegations against active priests or deacons" in the local Church and that "in the fall of 2018, the diocese engaged an independent investigative firm to conduct an outside review of the files of all diocesan priests and deacons. Their review led to the release of our list of clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in January 2019."

The Diocese of La Crosse commented that "the education, training, prevention and investigation policies and procedures that have been put into place over the past years in the Diocese of La Crosse have dramatically improved the protection of children entrusted into our care," and that when the attorney general's office makes requests of it, it 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." 

The Diocese of Superior noted the steps it has taken for the protection of minors, demonstrating that it "takes the issue of sexual abuse of minors very seriously." It, too, has hired Defenbaugh & Associates to conduct an independent third-party review of clergy files. It 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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The Superior diocese said it will "carefully evaluate" Kaul's request for diocesan records when it is received, "and the authority for it ... We have deep concerns about the potential adverse impact this could have on abuse survivors, because the publicity has the potential to re-victimize them. Many of those whose voices have been heard have requested that their information remain private. While we are concerned with the Attorney General’s focus on the Catholic Church, we will keep the lines of communication open."

In its statement, the Milwaukee archdiocese said that “it is important to note the Attorney General is talking about a review of historical cases, not any new reports or cases.”

“The Church takes the issue of sexual abuse of minors seriously and has put in place many prevention, education and accountability correctives during the past 20 years.”

“Over the past 20 years, no institution in the United States has done more to combat the evil of sexual abuse of a minor than the Catholic Church.  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, background checks, training, safe environment education and prevention, and outreach to abuse survivors,” the archdiocese concluded.

At least 177 priests have been identified as abusers of minors in Wisconsin. Each of the dioceses in the state, except that of Superior, as well as the Jesuits and the Norbertines, have published lists of clergy with credible allegations against them. The Diocese of Superior is preparing its list and intends to publish it by the end of the year, after an investigation carried out by a Texas-based independent law firm is completed.

Wisconsin is joining at least 22 other states that have launched investigations into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and others in position of leadership.

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