Milwaukee archdiocese refuses 'sealed' records to state abuse investigation

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

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is refusing to turn over its records to a state investigation into clergy sex abuse.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the archdiocese refused to turn over its sealed records to the state Department of Justice as part of its investigation into clerical sex abuse. The archdiocese claimed the records were sealed as part of a 2012 bankruptcy case.

In April, Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul had announced the launch of an investigation into sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses and at least three religious orders. He asked representatives of the dioceses to an April 26 online meeting.

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 priests have been identified as having abused minors.

In response to Kaul’s order, the Milwaukee archdiocese said in April that the Church has already taken the necessary steps to respond to clerical sex abuse – including publishing the names of the credibly accused priests.

On Wednesday, June 1, the attorney for the archdiocese Frank LoCoco sent a letter to Kaul informing him that the archdiocese believed the investigation was unlawful. The full letter was reported by Wisconsin Public Radio.

LoCoco proposed an “alternative pathway.” If a living priest in the archdiocese were accused over the state’s toll-free abuse hotline, “then that information should of course be forwarded immediately to the District Attorney for the county in which the abuse allegedly occurred,” the letter stated.

“Moreover, if you provide that information to us,” he wrote to Kaul, then the archdiocese “will promptly provide access to any available information to your office and to the applicable District Attorney so that the applicable District Attorney can undertake a thorough criminal investigation and make an informed charging decision.”  

Some of the archdiocesan records are under seal due to previous bankruptcy court proceedings, the letter said. While lawyers for some of the survivors had filed a motion in bankruptcy court to unseal some archdiocesan records, survivors had the option of filing claims on the public docket or under seal.

“Fewer than 5% of the claimants, a total of 28, filed their Proofs of Claim on the public docket,” the letter 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.”

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 – as outlined in the letter to Kaul’s office.

“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.

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.

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