Catholic bishops put on notice: Don't destroy abuse records

By Tom Kertscher And Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 27, 2018

Members of the Milwaukee chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests on Tuesday urged supporters for Democratic candidate for governor Matt Flynn to call on him to get out of the race, saying that as a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee he played a key role in covering up child sex abuse. Arthur Budzinski, Father Domenic Roscioli, his mother Angie Roscioli, Peter Isely, and Mike Sneesby held their news conference outside the Archbishop Weakland Center in downtown Milwaukee.
Photo by Mary Spicuzza

In this Aug. 29, 2018, file photo, U.S. Attorney William McSwain is shown at a news conference in Philadelphia. McSwain sent out grand jury subpoenas last week to Pennsylvania dioceses as part of a federal investigation of clergy abuse in Catholic churches. The investigation, which follows a state grand jury probe, was confirmed by multiple sources who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. McSwain wouldn't comment.
Photo by David Maialetti

Every Catholic diocese in the country has been asked by a federal prosecutor not to destroy documents related to the handling of child sexual abuse, fueling the hopes of survivors and advocates that a sweeping investigation of the church by the U.S. government may be coming.

"We are extremely encouraged," said Peter Isely, a survivor and founding member of the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "This is something we have been requesting and arguing and pushing for many years."

The Rev. James Connell, a canon lawyer and former vice chancellor for the 10-county Archdiocese of Milwaukee, also welcomed the news, saying Catholics in the pews have become increasingly disillusioned with the actions of their bishops.

"It's become clearer and clearer that the church has not told the whole truth, and that's a great disservice to society," he said.

Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, issued a statement on the Milwaukee Archdiocese's documentation retention policies Saturday night. 

"The Archdiocese of Milwaukee already has a very strict document retention policy in place. And more importantly, nearly 100,000 pages of documents related to clergy abuse in the archdiocese have already been released publicly and to the courts in the archdiocese's Chapter 11 proceedings. And many of those are on the archdiocesan website," Topczewski said.

"Although we don't think this will change our policy, our legal counsel will confer with the conference to ensure we are in compliance."

Listecki wrote a letter to parishes Oct. 4 acknowledging that some in the church have been complicit in covering up the sexual abuse of minors.

"There is no doubt that the handling of allegations by bishops and others, and the attempted cover-up by bishops and the institutional church, has led to the destruction of innocent lives," he said.

Earlier this month, William McSwain, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sent a letter to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, requesting that it preserve certain documents and notify local bishops and other affiliated organizations to do the same. The letter was first made public on the Catholic blog Whispers in the Loggia.

McSwain is overseeing the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into all eight Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania accused of covering up sex abuse for decades — the first time the federal government has undertaken an investigation of the church’s handling of abusive priests.

That probe comes just months after a grand jury report found that 301 "predator priests" in Pennsylvania dioceses had molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s. The grand jury report showed that the church leadership, including bishops, covered up the abuse.

Anthony R. Picarello Jr., associate general secretary and general counsel for the bishops conference, said in a statement that it has "transmitted the U.S. Attorney’s letter at his request and in the spirit of cooperation with law enforcement."

Connell said any probe of the church should attempt to determine to what extent bishops "worked together" to avoid telling the truth. And he said the church has a moral obligation to retain the documents.

"They should all be kept intact so we can learn the truth and there can be justice and healing."

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Milwaukee and across the country have long accused church leaders of shielding perpetrators and discrediting victims in an attempt to protect the church and its assets. To date, nearly 20 Catholic dioceses, including Milwaukee, and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection as a result of lawsuits and allegations of abuse.

And some advocates here and elsewhere have raised concerns that documents may have already been destroyed.

In a news release issued Saturday in response to the Justice Department probe, Isely reiterates allegations that Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh "destroyed nearly all criminal evidence of abuse and cover-up ... relating to at least 51 known sex offenders" when he served as bishop of Green Bay.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette has reported on Zubik, who held the Green Bay post until moving to Pennsylvania in 2007.

Bishop John Doerfler of Marquette, Michigan, who served as Zubik's vicar general at the time, testified in a 2011 deposition that he destroyed abuse records in the Green Bay diocese as part of a record retention policy put in place by Zubik.

State officials, including Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, also have been asked to investigate the church over the years, and the question has emerged as an issue in the Nov. 6 election. 

In a recent candidates debate, Schimel, who is seeking re-election, was asked if he would consider opening an investigation similar to the Pennsylvania probe into Catholic dioceses in Wisconsin. Schimel responded that he does not “indict by headline.” 

Questioned by Isely after the event, Schimel said he had been asked to "look at these things" but that he "not going to talk about an investigation publicly.” The attorney general was similarly evasive at a campaign event Saturday, saying "there have been discussions we've had with some individuals."


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