WMTV [Madison, WI]
January 12, 2023
By Elizabeth Wadas
A year and a half since the initiative was launched, more than 200 survivors have reported their abuse and two prosecutions have been made. That’s less than one percent.
Ineffective and harmful, that’s how some described a statewide investigation by Wisconsin’s Department of Justice. More than a year and a half after its creation, Attorney General Josh Kaul defends his plan to look into clergy abuse. He says progress is being made to hold religious leaders accountable.
Kaul originally pleaded with survivors, asking them to report their stories of abuse to his office to look into. Some of those survivors say after reporting, they have no idea what, if anything, is actually being looked into.
In April of 2021, standing on the Capitol steps, survivors of abuse put their faith in AG Kaul, faith his initiative would hold clergy and religious leaders accountable by law for past and present abuse if survivors came forward with their stories.
“I know how difficult its going to be for many of you to come forward again. I want you to know this time is different,” announced survivor Peter Isley at that original press conference where Kaul announced the initiative publicly. Isely is head of Nate’s Mission, a group working to get justice for clergy abuse survivors.
More than year and a half since its launch, 204 survivors have come forward with two prosecutions. That’s less than one percent of cases going to court. Isely says that’s not only unacceptable, it’s retraumatizing to victims.
Patrick Noth took the call from the AG to heart.
“It’s really harmful to tell your story and not really hear back,” says Noth.
He reported his childhood story of abuse by a Dane County priest to the DOJ, and says the reporting experience was positive. He says the person who took his report seemed well trained in talking with victims. But after the initial report was taken, Noth waited months. He exchanged emails with a DOJ Victim’s Service Specialist asking about where his case stood.
Eventually Noth received this email from a DOJ employee.
Maybe investigating is too strong of a word, correction reviewing all cases and information given. Glad to hear you are doing well. The overall goal of the initiative is to review all cases and determine what can be done with violations of clergy and faith leader abuse allegations. The Initiative does not have the resources to thoroughly “go after the “church” or investigate all allegations that that extend from many of these cases. I wish that could be done, but the reality is $$$
NBC15 Investigates asked AG Kaul if there were separate funds set aside to support the initiative when it was first launched.
“There are no specific funds, we have been using existing DOJ resources. Like I’ve said, the multidisciplinary teams consist of people who work at DOJ, prosecutors, investigators and victim advocates,” explained Kaul.
NBC15 Investigates asked Kaul’s office how many employees they have working on the clergy abuse initiative and how much time is spent doing so. It’s been almost a month, and our question has not been answered.
Kaul defends his department’s work on the initiative, though, saying it’s not only about prosecutions, it’s also about connecting survivors to resources outside the church to heal. Another sign of progress according to Kaul, all five Wisconsin Catholic dioceses now have disclosure lists published with the names of clergy and faith leaders who, according to the church, are credibly accused of abuse.
The diocese of Green Bay lists 50 people on their disclosure list.
The archdiocese of Milwaukee has 48 credibly accused abusers according to the church.
La Crosse lists 25.
The Superior diocese lists 23.
And the Madison diocese lists the fewest with 9.
“These lists are not accurate. They appear to not be accurate based in the information from church whistle blowers themselves,” says Sarah Pearson. She works with Isely at Nate’s Mission. The two say they have hand delivered evidence to the AG’s office that lists hundreds of additional clergy abusers. They say that evidence wasn’t investigated properly.
“They got them. Then to find out they told us some of those documents, important documents given by whistle blowers to us to give to the AG, they gave to church lawyers because church lawyers said we want those back,” claims Pearson.
NBC15 Investigates asked the AG’s office about that claim. Our question has gone unanswered for nearly two weeks.
Kaul says cooperation with Catholic dioceses in the state has varied. The Milwaukee Archdiocese announcing publicly they would not turn over documents to the DOJ. Madison Diocese leaders said they would cooperate with new allegations of abuse.
“Having the Catholic Church say were not participating in the investigation, and then having the DOJ do nothing about that. I don’t know what other institution gets that privilege. What other institution can you think of that says we are not participating in this statewide investigation, and then law enforcement does nothing about it?” questions Noth.
Some survivors like Noth want Kaul to take legal action against the church to seize documents for the investigation. They want Kaul to use subpoenas.
NBC15 Investigates asked Kaul if he would do that.
“In the context in the review we are conducting, if we had information that provided us a basis to subpoena documents, that’s something we could consider and assess whether that’s an appropriate step for the case, but that depends on the facts and info we receive,” says Kaul.
More than a year and a half in, survivors say faith in the investigation is fleeting. Noth saying he feels the DOJ hasn’t done enough.
“One hundred percent they failed,” Noth said. “They’ve failed every survivor that’s reported, and they’ve failed every survivor that is terrified to report because their nervous system is still activated by the thoughts and memories of what happened to them as a child.”
“We want them to go and take the evidence available to them and use it to conduct an actual investigation,” says Pearson.
But that same faith isn’t completely lost.
“This process is still ongoing. We are still reviewing cases and making assessments with our multidisciplinary teams. Also if people have info they haven’t reported yet, we want to encourage them to reach out and report,” says Kaul.