Despite criticism from Wisconsin AG, Milwaukee archdiocese stresses cooperation with new abuse cases

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 Milwaukee archdiocese said that to its knowledge the Wisconsin attorney general’s inquiry into sexual abuse, which some critics say is singling out the Catholic Church, has so far not resulted in any allegations against current archdiocesan priests.

“We continue to cooperate with any new allegations against a living priest, and have not received any word from the attorney general that any have been received,” Sandra Peterson, communication director with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, told CNA July 22.

The Milwaukee archdiocese has previously said 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. Some of the archdiocesan records are under seal due to previous bankruptcy court proceedings or because of abuse victims’ decisions to submit their claims under seal. Compliance with the attorney general’s request to produce records could mean another major expenditure of six figures on lawyers’ fees and staff hours for the Milwaukee archdiocese alone.

For his part, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul continues to criticize Catholic non-participation in his inquiry, which he announced in April.

“You know the Milwaukee Archdiocese put out a letter that they were, by and large, declining to cooperate with the review,” Kaul said at a July 20 press conference. “I think that's unfortunate. I think this is a real opportunity for the diocese and religious orders that have taken steps to demonstrate what they've done and how that process has moved forward.”

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 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.”

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. Archbishop Listecki has voiced doubt that the attorney general has the legal authority for the inquiry and said the archdiocese has “legitimate concerns that his inquiry is directly targeting only the Catholic Church.”

Kaul, speaking at a July 20 press conference, said anyone who has previously reported abuse they experienced or information about a potential abuse to a Catholic diocese or to local law enforcement should report it to his office. The Wisconsin Department of Justice said in a statement that people shouldn’t assume a previous report will be received by its office, blaming a lack of cooperation from Wisconsin’s five Roman Catholic dioceses.

Since Kaul opened the inquiry, the Department of Justice said it has received “over 100 reports of abuse by clergy and faith leaders, or related to how a religious organization has responded to abuse,” Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

“The reports have concerned clergy and faith leaders of multiple religious organizations as well as some reports of abuse not related to any religious organization. Some reports include claims against multiple abusers,” the Department of Justice has said.

Kaul said many reports to his office concern incidents that cannot be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations. The Department of Justice will refer cases to local district attorneys if they are eligible for investigation or prosecution. He declined to say how many cases have been referred.

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Other leaders in the Milwaukee archdiocese have criticized the effort.

“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 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.”

Of the some 578 claimants who filed claims against the archdiocese, 99% involved allegations of abuse before the year 1990. In June, Topczewski said, there had been only one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a Milwaukee archdiocese priest since 2000.

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“This reinforces the historical nature of these crimes and indicates that education and prevention efforts are effective,” he said.

Peterson told CNA the archdiocese and the Catholic Church in the U.S. have worked to improve its sexual abuse prevention and response programs.

“It’s important to note that no organization in the U.S. has done more than the Catholic Church to become the model of how to address and prevent sexual abuse,” she said. “The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is the largest provider of Safe Environment sexual abuse prevention training in Wisconsin with more than 100,000 people trained.”

“This is part of the stringent preventative measures we’ve put in place which include criminal background checks and an independent reporting mechanism,” she said. “We’ve also provided ongoing outreach to abuse survivors, paid for counselling, and worked with survivors to improve the Church’s response to those who were harmed.”

In April, Kaul had announced the launch of an investigation into sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses and at least three religious orders. State officials have portrayed the inquiry as an effort to verify public lists of priests credibly accused of abuse.

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 and intends to publish it by the end of the year.

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