Marshfield News Herald [Marshfield WI]
April 27, 2021
By Haley BeMiller and Laura Schulte, USA Today Network WI
[Photo above: Attorney General Josh Kaul speaks Tuesday, April 27, 2021 at the state Capitol about a Wisconsin Department of Justice initiative to review clergy abuse cases. In the background is the family of Nate Lindstrom, who took his own life at age 45 last year. Lindstrom accused three priests at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere of sexual abuse. MARK HOFFMAN / MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL]
Attorney General Josh Kaul on Tuesday announced an investigation into clergy sexual abuse across Wisconsin, saying the review will help survivors heal and provide greater accountability for perpetrators.
The probe, which USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin first reported Thursday, will be led by the state Department of Justice and focus on abuse allegations against Catholic clergy and other faith leaders — many of which date back decades and involve religious officials who are now dead.
Wisconsin is home to five dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and religious orders such as the Norbertines in De Pere.
“I would like to say to survivors of clergy and faith leader abuse: We hear you. We know how important this is,” Kaul said at a news conference outside the state Capitol in Madison.
Prosecutors will request documents from the dioceses and religious orders as part of the investigation. Kaul, a Democrat in his first term, met Monday with Catholic leaders to discuss next steps and asked them in a letter earlier this month not to destroy any records that could be relevant to the review.
State officials and advocates also called on survivors of abuse or anyone with information to contact the DOJ’s hotline at 877-222-2620 or visit supportsurvivors.widoj.gov. They hope to connect people to victim services in addition to investigating allegations.
“I know many of you have gone through this before,” said Peter Isely, a founding member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “You’ve gone to the church. You’ve gone to the police. You’ve gone to therapists. I know how difficult it’s going to be for many of you to come forward again. I want you to know this time is different.”
The probe comes amid a renewed reckoning over clergy abuse in Wisconsin after the suicide last year of a man who accused three priests from St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere of sexually abusing him as a teenager in the 1980s. Nate Lindstrom received $420,000 in secret payments from the Catholic order over 10 years until the abbey stopped sending checks in 2019, a Green Bay Press-Gazette investigation found.
“We are here because this issue is not about individual crimes,” said his wife, Karen Lindstrom. “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.”
Survivors and their advocates have long called for Wisconsin officials to take action, contending any review should be conducted by independent authorities and not the same institutions accused of perpetuating and covering up misconduct. Wisconsin will follow the District of Columbia and at least 21 other states that have investigated decades of sexual misconduct within religious institutions.
More than 170 priests across the state have been identified as assaulting children. Except for Superior, all Wisconsin Catholic dioceses along with St. Norbert Abbey and the Society of Jesus have published lists of clergy with “credible” allegations against them. The total number of victims remains unknown.
“It is our obligation to look at what happened historically, what’s occurring right now, and all with the goal of preventing this from happening ever again in the future,” said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. “So this is an incredibly important moment.”
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said he hopes the investigation is a chance for healing, even though it’s beginning years after many survivors started coming forward.
“This is entirely too late for us to start this process,” he said. “But it’s not too late to help finish it.”
Diocesan leaders reacted swiftly to Tuesday’s announcement, emphasizing that the DOJ review does not mean there are recent allegations against their clergy members. Officials in the Green Bay, Madison and La Crosse dioceses said they would review the attorney general’s request when they receive it.
“We believe 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,” La Crosse diocese spokesman Jack Felsheim said in a statement.
Kaul declined to offer specifics on the investigation or say whether his office would subpoena the dioceses if they don’t cooperate.
Jerry Topczewski, the chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the church has taken sexual abuse of minors seriously, held perpetrators accountable and put programs in place to prevent abuse from occurring. He cast doubt on claims that an investigation would help survivors heal from the trauma they suffered.
“We have concerns about the negative impact this could have on abuse survivors, because the publicity has the potential to re-victimize individuals,” he said.
Topczewski also said the investigation seemed to be unfairly targeting the Catholic church. Kaul said Tuesday that his office is currently focused on Catholic clergy but will investigate allegations reported against leaders of all faiths.
On the steps of the state Capitol, Patricia Marchant said she was sexually abused by a Madison priest who befriended her family. She went to the diocese in 1991 after her memories surfaced, she said, but church officials waited until 20 years after that to identify her abuser.
Marchant asked other survivors to step forward even if the process seems frightening, saying it’s not “on our shoulders anymore.”
“You’ll be protected, you will get the support you have deserved forever,” she said. “You will not be marginalized as my family was or blamed for having a righteous anger about this injustice or made fun of, actually, because we keep speaking about the unspeakable.”
If you have information about clergy sexual abuse in Wisconsin, you may contact the confidential DOJ hotline at 877-222-2620 or visit supportsurvivors.widoj.gov.