GREEN BAY (WI)
Green Bay Press Gazette [Green Bay WI]
August 10, 2021
By Natalie Eilbert
Warning: This story contains explicit details of childhood sexual assault that may be disturbing to some. Discretion is advised.
GREEN BAY – Four months into an independent investigation launched by the state’s top attorney, two cases of alleged clergy abuse have been reported and turned over to the Brown County district attorney’s office.
The two cases are among more than 100 reports statewide alleging abuse by faith leaders made possible by Attorney General Josh Kaul’s independent review, which began in April.
One of the Brown County cases is “current,” said Holli Fisher, program manager of the Sexual Assault Center of Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin, who was unable to disclose further details. The other one was from decades ago.
Fisher said one of the cases already is being investigated by the Brown County DA’s office. District Attorney David Lasee said both cases are potentially prosecutable in Brown County.
“I’ve been encouraged by the number of people coming through to report abuses. We know the list of priests who have been credibly accused,” Kaul told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, adding that the reports from survivors present new potential cases apart from what was previously known.
“It’s encouraging to see people coming forward,” Kaul said.
In a visit last week to the Brown County Courthouse alongside Lasee and Fisher, Kaul spoke of the uniqueness of this statewide investigation into church leader abuse. He points to the dozens of complaints his office has received as proof the independent review is an effective alternative to traditional methods of reporting abuse.
It was an uphill battle just to establish the review board. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, unsuccessfully pressed every other Wisconsin attorney general for years to launch a statewide investigation, including former AG Peggy Lautenschlager — Kaul’s mother.
The absence of this review board left survivors alone as both victims and witnesses to crimes, said Peter Isely, one of the founders of SNAP and the program director of Nate’s Mission, an organization dedicated to the full recognition of church abuse survivors, based on the late Nate Lindstrom of Green Bay.
“It’s bad enough to be the victim,” Isley said, who is himself a survivor of priest abuse. “But to have this sense of responsibility and duty adds an almost impossible burden.
But how exactly does reporting clergy and faith leader abuse work in Wisconsin?
How this differs from other methods of reporting clergy abuse
The investigation tool launched by Kaul provides two options of initial reporting for survivors of clergy and faith leader abuse who feel ready to report the crimes committed against them. Survivors can use the online reporting tool or call the toll-free number 1-877-222-2620.
So why not report to your church or local police?
Prior to this, survivors had to rely on internal investigation tools provided by the religious institutions. These “safe environment” resources were — and continue to be — run by officers and investigators hired by the church.
“This is a game involving a hell of a lot of people,” Isely said. “When there is something potentially damaging to you or your operation, you want to get the information first so you can, minimally, manage it.”
Many survivors, including Isely, are skeptical of those internal investigations. “It makes you wonder why they wouldn’t want the attorney general’s office to know about them,” he said.
In Isely’s experience over the last couple of decades, law enforcement failed when it came to preventing alleged predators from transferring to other Wisconsin parishes and across state lines. Additionally, patterns of discriminatory practices have done irrevocable harm to vulnerable communities, he said.
He recounted infamous Wisconsin cases of abusive priests in the state being “dumped” in African American churches, sent to Indigenous communities as far away as Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and being linked to the molestation of over 200 deaf children, as in the cases of Franciscan Brother Paul West, the Rev. Kenneth Walleman and the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, respectively.
“There’s a lot of mistrust of law enforcement in those communities,” Isely said. “And our hope is that we’re going to bring those people forward confidentially because this is a window and an opening that may never happen again.”
Ultimately, Isely said, advocates for clergy abuse survivors want the Wisconsin attorney general’s investigative report to examine not just cases of assault but a system that made justice so difficult for victims.
“This report has to incorporate how this has been policed — or not policed, and how survivors have been treated by law enforcement officials when they came forward,” Isely said. “What happened to those that did? Why were those cases not prosecuted?”
Kaul explained that there’s a multidisciplinary board comprising victim services specialists, investigators from local DA offices and DOJ criminal litigation prosecutors who look into allegations of abuse reported to his office.
“Based on the information, we make an assessment of where to go next,” Kaul said.
Healing mistrust starts with confidential report
Fisher, the program manager of the Sexual Assault Center of Family Services, said its 10 staff advocates and 15 volunteer advocates offer 24/7 support to survivors that is free and completely confidential.
Since the DOJ took on the call of protecting survivors against clergy abuse, survivors have a series of options customizable to their needs.
“We’ll do whatever the victim wants to do,” Fisher said.
Trained advocates can help survivors determine whether what they experienced was in fact abusive and offer mental health counseling and provide relevant resources, regardless of whether they want to issue a report.
Should survivors decide, after speaking with a specialist, that they want to press charges, agents of Family Services will locate law enforcement within that person’s jurisdiction, attend medical examinations, accompany them to law enforcement interviews, connect them to investigators, attend all court hearings (sometimes in the survivor’s stead, should they have a scheduling conflict), and make sure survivors understand the events of a court hearing.
“If they choose to report it, we will be with them through the whole process,” Fisher said. “We are here to support the victims.”
Reporting cases of clergy and faith leader abuse comes at no financial cost to the survivor. Reporting, investigating and prosecuting criminal cases are handled by the district attorney. In such cases, the charges are brought by the state of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin statute of limitations ‘is sadly like a game’
Shame and denial can overpower victims’ desire to report cases of childhood sexual assault, especially when it occurs at the hands of trusted institutions like the church.
Fisher said that once a survivor reaches adult age, they may decide to remain silent because of shame or the belief that they did something to cause the abuse. Faith leaders may have manipulated them into thinking they wanted the assault to happen.
More complicated, survivors and their family members may have otherwise good relationships with the abusive faith leader.
“They might have good memories they associate with them. It can be very confusing to have a positive experience of the person and a negative experience of the abuse,” Fisher said.
But no matter the reason a survivor is stunned into silence, Fisher thinks getting the perpetrator’s name into the world can be healing and powerful, even if a case is beyond the statute of limitations.
“It’s good to put the perpetrator’s name out there as a sort of validation or a different sense of justice for the victim. To be able to say ‘Hey, this person did do this to me. They did victimize children,'” Fisher said.
For Kaul, the importance of reporting supersedes the statute of limitations.
“Prosecution may not be possible, and that’s why we have three reviews,” Kaul said. “One is to connect survivors to services. Regardless of whether a case is beyond the statute of limitations, when people report they can be in touch with services by DOJ and (crime victim) services.”
What are the statutes of limitation in Wisconsin? The answer gets a bit hairy.
State law dictates that there is no statute of limitations on childhood sexual assault in cases of first-degree assault. In cases of second-degree assault, the crime must be reported before the victim turns 45.
That said, Wisconsin’s breakdown of first- and second-degree childhood sexual assault is complicated, mostly because, as noted by Ryan Poe-Glavinski, clinical director at the University of Wisconsin law school, “there isn’t much difference between the two at all.”
Both first- and second-degree assault cases involve sexual contact or intercourse with a child plus threat of force or violence, but Poe-Glavinski said the real differences come into play when pregnancy or bodily harm, first-degree offenses, is presented.
Bodily harm means bruising, cuts and lacerations, and physical injuries associated with the assault itself. Unless there’s photographic evidence or an immediate visit to a medical professional’s office, first-degree becomes difficult to prove. Pregnancy can be more cut and dry.
“Because there’s a criminal statute to see beyond a reasonable doubt, the question is can they prove it?” Poe-Glavinski said. “If we’re talking about the clergy, not always does it happen that we can prove pregnancy, bodily harm, or the use of weapon. We may not have any of that so we can’t meet the first-degree. The statute of limitations is sadly like a game. Prosecutors will always try for first-degree. It’s like giving your highest offer, knowing it’s going to go down,” she said.
Poe-Glavinski agrees with Kaul about the importance of reporting despite these road blocks, “because there might be other crimes that are possible to be charged and it’s good for law enforcement and prosecutors to know that this has happened and to see if there are other victims that do meet the statute of limitations.”
“It’s at least some measure of recognition of what happened to people. We want to do everything we can to stop this. More information means we can provide recommendations,” Kaul said. “One of the things that allows people to come forward is that they want to make sure abuse doesn’t happen to others. The more information we have the more we can identify best practices.”
Kaul said too that, provided the circumstances of a report allow, the statute of limitations can be frozen, “meaning the clock is not running.” Multidisciplinary teams can assess the factors and make that judgment, he said.
‘We want to heal survivors as much as we can,’ Kaul says
Isely is hopeful that real change can come from Kaul’s independent review.
“He’s careful, he’s cautious, he’s very deliberative and evidence-based,” Isely said. “Many of us have waited so long for something like this and they want him to just bust down the door. I do, too. But I’ve been at this a long time and, I don’t say this lightly, I’m optimistic that he is the way he is. He didn’t make this decision overnight, I can guarantee you that.”
In most of the counties they serve, Family Services uses the protocol SART (Sexual Assault Response Team), which dictates that any time a victim presents their case to police, law enforcement has to offer them a victim advocate, Fisher explained.
This is key for survivors who might feel overwhelmed by the process of reporting. That this hovers around religion affects how survivors reach out, but Fisher hopes that religious people learn from this independent review the complicated nature of reporting faith leaders to the authorities.
“Religion can be a resource for folks, or it can be traumatizing for folks. Some people get comfort from their spirituality and the community it provides. But if that’s the place where someone was victimized, and members of that church side with the religious institution instead of the victims, it can be a place for real harm,” Fisher said.
“I would just encourage folks to think about, if this does happen within their religious institution, a victim-centered approach and think what this person might be going through.”
If you or someone you know has been impacted by clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin, you are encouraged to use the online reporting tool or else call the toll-free number 1-877-222-2620.