Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
November 11, 2021
By Laura Schulte
As allegations of abuse at the hands of Catholic priests continue to emerge, Wisconsin hasn’t been immune to the scandal.
In 2019, one former priest was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 2020, a reckoning came for the Norbertines in De Pere after a suicide and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to a man once preyed on by priests at the abbey.
In early 2021, Josh Kaul, the Wisconsin attorney general, announced an investigation into claims of clergy abuse and systemic cover-up over decades.
Advocates and survivors hope the investigation will bring closure to an issue they say has carried on too long without legal intervention. Dioceses in the state disagree with the investigation, calling it “bigotry” to look into one religious denomination but not others and say investigations should focus on reports regarding current, living priests.
Here is the background on the Department of Justice investigation and where it stands as it reaches its sixth month:
The investigation follows calls for review by an independent authority
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, Kaul said the investigation focuses on clergy and faith leaders because more than 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.
What is the goal of the investigation?
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.
The statute of limitations could affect the investigation
For criminal cases, victims of child sexual assault older than 45 can’t bring charges forward, and for civil cases, the ability to sue ends at age 35. While advocates and survivors for years have encouraged legislators to change the statute of limitations or open a “window” for people to file civil charges, the Legislature has not taken up any bills.
The statute of limitations will greatly limit the ability of prosecutors to bring charges against abusers if the victim waited to report until after the reporting period expired. Some cases, however, will be eligible for legal action if the abuser left Wisconsin before the statute of limitations expired, and did not return, which essentially pauses the clock on the statutes.
How many cases of clergy abuse have been documented in Wisconsin?
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has compiled a list of 177 members of the clergy who have been confirmed to have abused minors during their time in the Catholic Church.
So far, four of Wisconsin’s dioceses have released lists of confirmed abusers: the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Diocese of Green Bay, the Diocese of La Crosse and the Diocese of Madison. The Diocese of Superior has not yet released a list.
The St. Norbert Abbey and the Society of Jesus have also released lists of confirmed abusers.
How many reports has the AG’s office received?
So far, there have been about 180 reports to the AG’s office, including reports of abuse by clergy and faith leaders or related to how a religious organization responded to abuse. The reports have concerned clergy and other faith leaders from multiple organizations, as well as some reports of abuse not tied to any religious organization. Some of the reports included claims against multiple abusers.
Two cases that we know of have been forwarded to prosecutors
So far, two cases have been referred to the Brown County District Attorney’s Office for investigation, but Kaul declined to say if any other cases have been forwarded to investigators anywhere else in the state.
Where the state’s Catholic dioceses stand on the investigation
The dioceses announced after Kaul launched the investigation that they would not participate unless there were claims brought forward against current, living priests.
The Milwaukee Archdiocese has taken the firmest stance against the investigation, calling it “anti-Catholic bigotry” and refusing to allow investigators to see its records.
How long will the investigation continue?
Kaul said there is no planned end for the investigation or to take down the clergy abuse hotline the department established. As long as the department keeps receiving reports, it will continue to investigate and work with law enforcement across the state. The lack of participation from the dioceses will likely prolong the investigation, though.
Are there other areas the investigation will explore?
Kaul recently asked for survivors and others with knowledge of abuse that occurred at the hands of religious leaders involved with residential schools in Wisconsin to come forward. Such schools were used as a tool to forcefully assimilate Indigenous youth by separating them from their traditional culture and language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In early November, survivors of the schools and advocates gathered on the Menominee Reservation to call for Kaul to expand his investigation into clergy abuse to the schools after the discovery of mass graves at Indian boarding schools in Canada and a review announced in the U.S.
Kaul said the history of the schools is “shameful and disturbing” and encouraged survivors and others to share their stories with the Department of Justice.
Notable cases of abuse in Wisconsin
In 2020, an investigative report from the Green Bay Press Gazette detailed the story of Nate Lindstrom, who took his own life after being abused by several priests at Premontre, a Norbertine high school in Green Bay.
Lindstrom for years received payments from the Norbertines until the organization stopped in May 2019. In early 2020, Lindstrom took his life after he reported additional allegations.
Since then, there have been calls for change within the schools tied to the Norbertines, but those calls have largely fallen on deaf ears for the institutions. The organization has continued to name priests with credible accusations against them; the latest announcement identified two priests who abused minors in the 1960s and 1980s.
In 2019, former priest Thomas Ericksen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for abusing a number of young boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ericksen was arrested after one of his victims came forward and pushed for the Sawyer County district attorney to file charges against the former priest, who left the priesthood in the early 1980s after being questioned by police.
By the time of Ericksen’s sentencing, many more men stepped forward and shared their stories of abuse at the hands of the priest. After the 30-year sentence was handed down, many of the men expressed that they finally felt a sense of freedom, seeing their abuser escorted away in handcuffs.
Ericksen remains in custody at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls.
Other states have investigated Catholic dioceses
Wisconsin joined at least 22 other states that have launched investigations into sexual abuse by clergy.
In 2018, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania showed that more than 1,000 children had been abused by at least 300 clergy members since the 1940s and that senior members of the church worked to systematically cover up the abuse in the state’s six dioceses, according to the Associated Press. At least two priests were charged with crimes as a result of the report.
Colorado’s attorney general opened an investigation into abusive clergy members in 2019, finding 52 priests were credibly accused of sexual abuse, according to the Colorado Sun. The review resulted in a claims process that paid 77 survivors more than $7.3 million after an agreement between the state’s three dioceses and the attorney general’s office.
In Michigan, officials launched an investigation in 2018 and found that 454 priests had abused 811 victims across the state’s seven dioceses, the Detroit Free Press reported. The investigation is ongoing and Attorney General Dana Nessel said more abusive clergy members could be identified.
How to file a report
If you or someone you know would like to file a report, call 877-222-2620 or use the online reporting tool at supporsurvivors.widoj.gov. Both options provide the ability to file an anonymous tip.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.
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