Green Bay Press Gazette [Green Bay WI]
May 10, 2021
By Haley BeMiller
A newly launched review of clergy sexual abuse across Wisconsin has reignited a push for accountability long sought by survivors but also highlights the challenges of investigating what happened to children decades ago.
The investigation will be led by the state Department of Justice and focus on allegations against Catholic clergy and other faith leaders. Prosecutors will rely on documents from Wisconsin’s religious orders and five dioceses, along with reports from victims or others who have information.
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.
Here’s what you need to know about the state’s investigation and clergy abuse in Wisconsin.
Why is Wisconsin doing this?
Survivors and their advocates have long called for Wisconsin officials to launch an investigation, contending any review should be conducted by independent authorities and not the same institutions accused of perpetuating and covering up misconduct.
In an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul said the probe focuses on clergy and faith leaders because over 170 priests in Wisconsin have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. He also wants to ensure processes are in place to prevent further abuse and give victims a trusted setting to reach out and connect with resources.
“This review in and of itself is going to shine a light on exactly what happened and, hopefully, significantly improve our understanding of the issue of clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin,” Kaul said.
The attorney general also emphasized that his office wants to hear from people with information about any kind of abuse, even if it occurred within a non-religious organization.
“Our focus is on sexual assault,” he said. “It’s on getting accountability where cases of sexual assault have happened and preventing cases of sexual assault from happening in the future.”
What could come out of the investigation?
Clergy abuse cases are complicated by the fact that many allegations date back decades — placing them outside the statute of limitations for prosecution — and involve religious officials who are now dead. Victims of child sexual assault often take years to remember and face the trauma they endured.
Kaul said prosecutors will “follow the facts” and pursue any criminal activity they discover at an individual or institutional level. If a case can be prosecuted, the DOJ would refer it to the local district attorney or provide a special prosecutor if requested.
Investigators will also review lists published by religious institutions that identify credibly accused priests and follow up with church leaders if they identify problems with those lists, Kaul said. The investigation will culminate in a summary report of the DOJ’s findings.
What have Wisconsin church officials done to address clergy abuse?
Six institutions have publicly identified Wisconsin priests with “credible” allegations of abuse lodged against them: the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; the Green Bay, Madison and La Crosse dioceses; the Society of Jesus; and St. Norbert Abbey. The Diocese of Superior is conducting a review with Texas-based Defenbaugh and Associates, and the abbey recently hired that firm to re-examine its files.
The Milwaukee archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011 after it was unable to reach a mediated settlement with victims, and after a court decision absolved insurance companies of liability. It reached a $21 million settlement with 330 victims in 2015 and set up a $500,000 therapy fund.
Church officials say they have worked for years to improve their policies and prevent further assault of children. The Diocese of Green Bay, for example, requires its priests and employees to undergo background checks and participate in training that aims to “prevent wrongdoing” in religious organizations.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the biggest shift in policy is that church officials now report all allegations to authorities, even if the statute of limitations has expired. The archdiocese also provides safe environment training, continues to cover therapy for survivors and bans confidentiality agreements “except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim-survivor.”
“We continue to look at what’s been accomplished over the last 20 years,” Topczewski said. “We may not have been proud of our record in handling all cases in the past, but I think we can be proud as a church, as Catholics, of how we’ve responded to this societal issue.”
How is the church responding to the DOJ probe?
Diocesan leaders have said they’re still reviewing the attorney general’s request. Kaul has declined to say whether his office would subpoena records if they don’t cooperate.
But Topczewski questions the legal basis for the probe after years of church reform and has said Kaul is “a little late to the game.” He also argued increased publicity of the issue could retraumatize some abuse survivors, even though many have expressed support for the review.
“There isn’t anyone who speaks on behalf of all abuse survivors,” Topczewski said. “There just isn’t. Every person is different, and what they want is different and what they need is different and where they are in their journey is different.”
What have other states done?
Wisconsin will follow the District of Columbia and at least 21 other states that have investigated decades of sexual misconduct within religious institutions.
Those inquiries have produced varying results: A grand jury in Pennsylvania exposed the cover-up of allegations that more than 300 priests abused at least 1,000 children, while a Colorado investigation revealed 52 priests assaulted 212 victims.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said investigators found church officials had failed to support victims who also were dissuaded from coming forward because of the systems in place. The church has since corrected those problems, he said, helping spur a cultural change in Colorado and increased awareness of the issue.
“The church is not in a position, having covered up, and in many cases lied, about abuse to police itself,” Weiser said. “The church doesn’t have the credibility to do this.”
What are the challenges?
Officials in other states say these investigations aren’t without obstacles.
Sexual assault cases are difficult to prosecute by their nature, and allegations against clergy are more challenging because victims come forward decades later, said Danielle Hagaman-Clark, the assistant attorney general in Michigan. Someone like a parent may no longer be alive to corroborate the victim’s claims, or they may be unwilling to testify.
“Are they willing to say that this priest who was such a big part of their life for so many years may have done something inappropriate with their child?” Hagaman-Clark said. “It’s a whole different ball game.”
And that’s assuming a crime is still within the statute of limitations for prosecution and the perpetrator is still alive. Only 11 priests in Michigan have faced prosecution so far despite at least 454 being accused of abuse. Colorado officials were unable to bring any charges, Weiser said.
The success of an investigation can also depend on how cooperative the church chooses to be. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said his office had to fight dioceses for records he believes they should have provided voluntarily.
A New Mexico priest died weeks before his trial was scheduled to start, Balderas said, underscoring the failure of communities and law enforcement to bring these cases to light when justice could still be served.
“There’s many blind spots,” he said. “I bet I could go to Wisconsin and find blind spots where there’s inadequate reporting on people in positions of authority.”
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.
Contact Haley BeMiller at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @haleybemiller.