Diocese of Green Bay issues response to advocacy group claims of new clergy abuse evidence

Green Bay Press Gazette [Green Bay WI]

January 21, 2022

By Natalie Eilbert

The Diocese of Green Bay responded Friday to an advocacy group’s allegations that it had covered up 69 additional priests connected to child abuse. 

“Regarding this declaration of new evidence, no one from Nate’s Mission, including Mr. (Peter) Isely, has contacted the diocese in recent months to report any specific information related to abuse,” said a statement from the Diocese of Green Bay.  “The diocese has and will continue its practice of notifying authorities of allegations of abuse it receives.”

The statement from the diocese comes a day after advocates from Nate’s Mission delivered documents to the office of Brown County District Attorney David Lasee. Isely, the advocacy group’s program director, told reporters on Thursday that the documents were obtained by whistleblowers operating from within the church. 

Isely did not show the Green Bay Press-Gazette the contents of the package or any of the documents to allow the newspaper to independently verify the organization’s claims.

Currently, a list of 50 names appears on the Diocese of Green Bay’s public disclosure list of abusive priests.

Nate’s Mission said in a statement Friday it chose not to communicate with the diocese prior to going directly to the authorities.

“The policy of Nate’s Mission is to never to provide victim information or criminal evidence of a cover-up to any church organization, entity or official currently under criminal or civil investigation,” said the statement co-written by Isely and deputy director Sarah Pearson.

For that reason, the documents were instead delivered to the offices of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Lasee.

Nate’s Mission, an organization pushing for a full accounting of clergy abuse in Wisconsin, is named after the late Nate Lindstrom of Green Bay, who accused multiple priests from St. Norbert Abbey of abuse. Lindstrom received $420,000 in secret payments from the Catholic order over 10 years until the abbey stopped sending checks in 2019. He died by suicide in 2020.

Among the papers handed over to Kaul’s office were documents that allege the Diocese of Green Bay destroyed filings in 2007, according to the advocacy group.

The decision to destroy the documents, made by then-Bishop David Zubik, prevented prosecutors from pursuing criminal investigations of clergy, a release from Nate’s Mission said. 

According to the advocacy group, the records show personnel reports, parish transfers  and minutes from church leaders discussing tactics and strategies to evade prosecution.

Friday’s statement from the Diocese of Green Bay did not mention the destruction of documents. Rather, it emphasized that the safety of people within the church remains “paramount” to the diocese.

The diocese disclosed its decades-long efforts to utilize safety tools that “ensure the safety of every person in the diocese, including background checks, rigorous safe environment training and education, mandatory reporting mechanisms and outreach to survivors of abuse.”

To that end, the organization stated it would cooperate with Kaul’s office. 

“The Diocese of Green Bay is currently communicating with Attorney General Josh Kaul’s office and will provide documents relating to any prosecutable crimes uncovered by the Attorney General’s office during his review,” said the statement from the diocese. “Because this process is ongoing, and to protect the integrity of the review and any findings, no further comments will be made at this time.”

But Pearson and Isely are challenging this assurance. They countered that the Diocese of Green Bay lacks statutory authority to determine what is and what is not a prosecutable offense.

“Attorney General Kaul, however, does possess the authority to make these determinations and act accordingly,” said the statement from Nate’s Mission. “As such, we expect his office to issue subpoenas to retrieve evidence from the Green Bay diocese and compel the testimony of individuals involved in institutional concealment of criminal evidence.”

Last April, Kaul announced a statewide investigation into clergy abuse, an initiative that he hoped would help survivors gain control of their narratives and lead to greater accountability for perpetrators. 

Four months into Kaul’s initiative, Kaul announced that two cases were reported directly to the Brown County District Attorney’s Office. One case was current, and the other was from a few decades ago, according to the Sexual Assault Center of Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin. 

Isely said he hopes that Lasee “puts the heat up” on the Diocese of Green Bay with this new information.

Natalie Eilbert is a government watchdog reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. You can reach her at neilbert@gannett.com or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert.