‘This is criminal evidence’: Advocates deliver boxes of documents regarding clergy abuse to attorney general

Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]

January 18, 2022

By Laura Schulte

An advocacy group has turned over thousands of pages of documents from the five Wisconsin Catholic dioceses it says demonstrate a systemic coverup of sexual abuse by clergy members.

Nate’s Mission, an advocacy group aimed at ending clergy abuse in Wisconsin, handed the documents over to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul on Tuesday, in a move to further the investigation launched last year into abusive clergy and the coverup of abuse by Catholic dioceses.

The group is named for Nate Lindstrom, who accused multiple priests at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere of sexually abusing him in the 1980s. He died by suicide in 2020, nearly one year after the abbey stopped sending secret payments he received for 10 years.

More:First came sex abuse allegations at the abbey. Then secret payments. Then a suicide.

The five dioceses include the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Madison, La Crosse, Superior, and Green Bay. 

Peter Isley and Sarah Pearson, both members of the group, carried two boxes of documents to Kaul’s office Tuesday. 

The documents were provided to Nate’s Mission by whistleblowers within the dioceses, the group said. 

“This is criminal evidence that we’re looking at right here. Evidence of sexual abuse of children over the past decades, evidence of sexual abuse over the past decades,” Isely said. 

More:Wisconsin’s attorney general is investigating the handling of clergy abuse claims. Here’s what we know

The documents include personnel files, meeting minutes in which church leaders discuss transferring abusive clergy members to new parishes, insurance paperwork and internal lists of accused priests that contain almost twice as many names as those released to the general public, advocates said Tuesday.

About 160 priests have been named as having substantiated claims against them in Wisconsin according to lists released by the dioceses, including 48 priests from the Diocese of Green Bay and 48 from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The Superior Diocese has not yet released a list of credibly accused abusers. 

The small selection of documents Nate’s Mission made public provide an outline of which information should be kept by the Diocese of Green Bay, and for how long. Many of the personal records of priests were to be destroyed shortly after their death.

Among the documents delivered to Kaul are a number of other filings that were supposedly destroyed by the Diocese of Green Bay in 2007, according to the 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. 

Shortly after the destruction of the documents, Zubik was named the new Bishop of Pittsburgh and left Wisconsin. 

More:David Zubik, former Green Bay bishop, under fire over Pennsylvania abuse cases

Also included in the documents released to the public was a 2017 letter from one of the attorneys for the Diocese of Green Bay, instructing them to preserve documents related to child sexual abuse. 

Isely said that within the destroyed documents was proof of the criminal behavior of a number of former priests from the diocese. 

“The question for the Attorney General to investigate is was the destruction of this evidence illegal? Did it break Wisconsin law?” Isely said. “That’s the question and in order to answer that, he’s going to have to speak to the people that were involved.” 

Officials with the Diocese of Green Bay did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Green Bay abuse case included in documents

Included in a portion of the documents released online by Nate’s Mission are a number of internal documents regarding former priest John Feeney. 

In 2012, a jury awarded two brothers $700,000, after finding the Diocese of Green Bay responsible for concealing Feeney’s history of child molestation. The two men were abused as boys by Feeney, while assigned to St. Nicholas Church in Freedom, according to a May 2012 report. Feeney was convicted in 2004 for the assaults and served a prison sentence. 

At the time, the diocese claimed it had no knowledge of abuse.

The documents made available by Nate’s Mission say otherwise. 

In a May 30, 1989, letter to Bishop Adam Maida of Green Bay, Peter Leuchner of the Servants of the Paraclete Treatment Center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, diagnosed the priest with an “attraction to adolescents,” among other mental health diagnoses. 

More: Archdiocese of Milwaukee says it won’t participate in AG investigation of clergy sex abuse

Leuchner goes on to recommend that Feeney not be allowed to work with youth and be kept under supervision of another priest, while still undergoing therapy. 

Another letter, from a Dr. Thomas Kelley in 1974, indicated that issues had arisen before.

“As I indicated, our evaluation conclusion is that under stress your usual controls over (redacted) may fail and cause some indiscretions in this aspect of your functioning,” Kelley said in the letter. 

The documents should prove that the dioceses have more information than they’ve indicated in the past, information that should be requested by the Attorney General and reviewed, Pearson said. 

“What we’re asking the attorney general to do is look through this evidence we’re providing today and he will find accounts that demonstrate the corporate and institutional nature of the crime,” she said. “He really needs to hold up his end of the bargain. He needs to do whatever it takes to get that evidence. He told us himself, no detail is too small, that (he) would follow the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of who’s involved in it.” 

Investigation sees claims of abuse

Kaul’s investigation was launched in April 2021, seeking reports of abuse at the hands of clergy members within the Catholic church and other denominations as reports of institutional abuse continued to surface across the state

As of October, the Department of Justice had received about 180 reports of abuse by clergy and faith leaders or related to how a religious organization has responded to abuse. Reports have concerned clergy and faith leaders from multiple religious organizations, as well as some reports of abuse not related to any religious organization. Some reports include claims against multiple abusers. 

Of the reports received, 80% were reports of abuse, while 20% were related to how an institution handled a claim of abuse, according to the department. The ages of those reporting abuse range from under 18 to over 75. About 40% of the individuals who have reported to the clergy hotline have not reported to a law enforcement agency or a religious entity before. 

So far, two cases have been referred to the Brown County District Attorney’s Office for further investigation, but Kaul declined to say if any other cases have been forwarded to investigators anywhere else in the state. 

Some reports can’t be sent on to local investigators, though, because they fall outside of the state’s statute of limitations. 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. 

Kaul said the investigation was ongoing but no further information was available. 

“The Wisconsin Department of Justice continues to encourage anyone with information about clergy and faith leader abuse to report,” Kaul said in a statement Tuesday. “The goals of this independent review are to make sure that victim services are accessible to survivors, to stop future cases of abuse, and to get accountability where possible, and we are committed to following the facts wherever they lead.”

More: Wisconsin launched a clergy sex abuse investigation. Here’s why, and what it means for victims, church officials

Wisconsin’s dioceses announced after Kaul launched the investigation that they would not participate unless claims are brought 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. 

Sen. Ron Johnson denies knowledge of destroyed documents

The group also raised questions about whether U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson knew about the destruction of the documents.

At the time the documents were destroyed, Johnson was serving on the Green Bay Diocesan Finance Council. 

The group did not offer evidence Johnson was aware of the document destruction or account for whether the bishop or another official could have acted without the council’s authorization.

Johnson disputed the claims, saying Tuesday he had no knowledge of coverups of abuse. 

“We all share a deep sense of sympathy for anyone that has been affected by these crimes and the punishment for the actual perpetrators should be severe,” he said in a statement. “I categorically deny even knowing about destruction of documents much less being ‘involved’ in their destruction.” 

Johnson said he was serving on the Council because of his support of Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh, which his children attended. 

More: First came sex abuse allegations at the abbey. Then secret payments. Then a suicide

Johnson, a Lutheran, has also been outspoken in his opposition to changing Wisconsin’s statute of limitations for civil action against abusers. In 2010, Johnson, who was at the time an Oshkosh businessman on the cusp of winning his first Senate race, challenged the change, citing his worry over the employers of abusers — such as the Catholic church — being damaged by civil action. 

“I believe it is a valid question to ask whether the employer of a perpetrator should also be severely damaged, or possibly destroyed, in our legitimate desire for justice,” Johnson said.

But Johnson has also advocated for the diocese to release the names of clergy members suspected of abuse, after criticism from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. He said that complete transparency was the only way to deal with abuse in the church, and that anyone withholding information should be prosecuted, according to a Sept. 30, 2010 article from the Badger Herald

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura