Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
June 3, 2021
By Laura Schulte and Patrick Marley
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee said Attorney General Josh Kaul doesn’t have the authority, and that the investigation is “anti-Catholic bigotry”
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is pushing back against a recently announced attorney general investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, calling it a display of “anti-Catholic bigotry” and a violation of the First Amendment.
In a letter from the archdiocese’s attorney, Frank LoCoco of the Milwaukee firm Husch Blackwell, contends Attorney General Josh Kaul doesn’t have the authority to investigate the Catholic dioceses of the state and that doing so would go against the U.S. Constitution and state laws.
In the letter, LoCoco suggests that the investigation may be motivated by anti-religious sentiments, and that the probe is looking back too far in time.
The first-term, Democratic attorney general announced the investigation in April.
Led by Kaul’s Department of Justice, the probe focuses on abuse allegations against clergy and other faith leaders, many of which date back decades and involve religious officials who are now dead.
An investigation will be difficult to get underway with the archdiocese declining to produce documents, though.
In a Tuesday email to congregants, Archbishop Jerome Listecki did vow to cooperate with any investigation into living members of the clergy brought forward during this inquiry. He wrote that instead of focusing on past abuse, Kaul should be investigating new claims.
In an email Thursday afternoon, Kaul said the investigation was launched in pursuit of accountability, healing and to prevent future abuse.
“We’re disappointed that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has declined the opportunity to cooperate in that effort, but our review will continue to move forward,” he said.
The investigation “appears to be a product of anti-Catholic bigotry,” LoCoco said his letter.
“This is a violation of the Establishment Clause which precludes the disfavoring of a particular religion.”
He said that though Kaul has said the investigation will look at other groups, the investigation still seems to target the Catholic Church.
The letter pointed to a canceled training session that was to be hosted on May 4 by the attorney general’s office, titled “Clergy and Faith Leader Abuse Training.” That training — particularly a section on the structure of the Catholic Church and its response to clergy abuse — shows a bias, he argued.
Though the training was canceled, information about the session is available on the attorney general’s website. It is not clear if the session will be rescheduled.
LoCoco argued Kaul could not look into past clergy abuse claims because the opportunity to do so passed years ago. The Department of Justice should have filed its requests for information during the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case, he said.
State law limits the powers of the attorney general, and LoCoco argued Kaul couldn’t look into the archdiocese because his review “does not involve the investigation of crime that is statewide in either nature, importance, or influence.” District attorneys — not the attorney general — are the ones who can investigate specific crimes, he argued.
The archdiocese asserts that it has done all it can to atone for the abuse that occurred, offering an apology for the suffering caused to those harmed.
“We can never apologize enough, and I am so sincerely sorry for what happened to these individuals,” Listecki wrote in his June 1 email. “The abuse they suffered was not their fault. It was the fault of criminals who used the sanctity of the priesthood to commit crimes, and I am sick to my stomach when I think about it.”
Listecki and LoCoco in their correspondence both indicated that a $21 million settlement with 330 victims in 2015 and the release of names of abusive clergy members have been a part of their attempt to atone for the abuse. Rules require that church officials now report all allegations to authorities, even if the statute of limitations has expired.
LoCoco also highlighted training that priests, volunteers and others directly working with minors have been required to attend.
“The Catholic Church in Wisconsin, if not the country, is the largest provider of training to protect children from sexual abuse,” he wrote. “The (archdiocese) itself has provided safe environment training to almost 100,000 individuals who work with minors.”
“It seems like the Church could be a model for others to follow and the Attorney General could be investigating ongoing crimes from today, not from decades past,” Listecki wrote.
Before announcing the investigation, Kaul said he met with the leaders of the five Catholic dioceses and various orders. No details on that meeting were released, and the dioceses released statements that they were giving thought to the investigation.
Soon afterward, Kaul requested documents from the dioceses and religious orders.
Once the investigation is concluded, the DOJ will release a summary report of its findings, though any legal action will have to be taken by the district attorney in the county in which the abuse occurred.
At the time the investigation was announced, Kaul declined to offer specifics on the investigation or say whether his office would subpoena the dioceses if they didn’t cooperate.
The investigation into the dioceses comes during 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.
Survivors of abuse 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.
Peter Isely, a survivor of abuse as a child and a founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the pushback isn’t surprising — but it is frustrating, after similar investigations have occurred in so many other states. He said that he is confident in Kaul and the district attorneys across the state, though, and that he and other survivors believe that they will be able to accomplish the investigation no matter what the obstacles.
“Survivors, we are confident that this is finally going to happen. You know, if they’re going to fight it, it may take longer, but we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Citizens of Wisconsin will get a truly third party review and investigation by people who should be doing it — law enforcement.”
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.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.