MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — Saying the Wisconsin attorney general’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse is an unlawful targeting of the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will not cooperate in the state’s plan to review old case files of priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has for 20 years thoroughly reviewed every allegation made against a priest and submitted the information to local district attorneys. Information on those credibly accused of sex abuse of a minor has been posted online since 2004.
“There is significant doubt that the attorney general has the legal authority to conduct such an investigation,” Listecki said June 1 in his weekly e-mail to the faithful in the 10-county archdiocese. “We have legitimate concerns that his inquiry is directly targeting only the Catholic Church. We have accepted our past history and worked so vigilantly to correct how things are handled but it’s the Church that is continually targeted.”
On April 27, Wisconsin Attorney General Joshua L. Kaul announced an investigation into clergy and faith leader sexual abuse of minors. This came one day after he met with representatives from the five Wisconsin Catholic dioceses and at least two religious orders. Requests have since been made by the state for historical documents related to clergy accused of abusing minors. Kaul said the investigation is not aimed solely at the Catholic Church.
Listecki said the archdiocese automatically refers information on any new abuse allegations to county district attorneys, and will continue to do so. The archdiocese already conducted historical case reviews as part of its 2011-2012 bankruptcy reorganization in federal court, and has had outside law enforcement experts examine records to make sure no cases were missed.
“We have continued to work with abuse survivors to improve the Church’s response to those who have been harmed, and we have also put stringent preventative measures in place,” Listecki said. “In addition, we have supported extending the statute of limitations to allow more time for prosecution of offenders, and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has provided more than $50 million in direct payments to individual abuse survivors.”
Kaul said he was disappointed in the decision. “Our independent, statewide review of clergy and faith leader abuse seeks to provide a measure of accountability, the opportunity for healing, and to help prevent future cases of abuse,” he said in a statement. “We’re disappointed that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has declined the opportunity to cooperate in that effort, but our review will continue to move forward.”
Archdiocesan attorney Francis H. LoCoco of the Husch Blackwell law firm wrote to Kaul that of the 578 abuse claims submitted to the archdiocese in the bankruptcy case, 99 percent involved abuse committed prior to 1990. Only one case alleged abuse committed after the year 2000. The archdiocese produced 60,000 pages of documents for attorneys representing abuse survivors, then spent $600,000 to prepare documents for public release, he said.
“Having worked with abuse survivors for the past 30 years, it is the AOM’s (Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s) experience that conducting an investigation like the one proposed here will not lead to ‘healing,’” LoCoco wrote. “Rather, it will lead to the further victimization of those who have already suffered significantly.” Given the long time period since first public disclosure of the cases, he said, “there is simply no benefit to your office attempting to conduct this type of unwarranted investigation in the absence of any legal authority and in the absence of any defined and reachable goals.”
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee lists 48 people on its public database of clergy with credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. First posted online in 2004 and updated since, the web site since 2013 includes thousands of pages of case files and human resources documents with background on the accused. LoCoco said even in cases where the district attorney decided not to prosecute, the archdiocese hired former Milwaukee Police Department detectives to investigate each case. An Archdiocesan Review Board of outside officials then recommended to the archbishop whether the charges were substantiated.
In his letter to Kaul, LoCoco said the investigation seems to be based on a bigoted view of the Catholic Church. “The investigation improperly targets the Roman Catholic Church and appears to be a product of anti-Catholic bigotry,” LoCoco wrote. “This is a violation of the Establishment Clause, which precludes the disfavoring of a particular religion.” Despite Kaul’s “platitudes” that the probe will include other groups, LoCoco said, “in every official statement the attorney general makes clear that the Catholic Church is the target of the investigation.”
The attorney general’s office should have brought these issues before the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, but did not, LoCoco said. “At most, the attorney general appears to be purporting to stand in the shoes of abuse survivors to seek relief against the AOM,” he wrote. “Such ‘authority’ is well beyond the attorney general’s statutory authority.”
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley determined the 578 abuse claims did not represent a public-safety threat. “The vast majority of the claims allege abuse that occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s,” Judge Kelly wrote, according to LoCoco’s letter. “For the most part, the alleged abusers named in the claims are those identified by the debtor as having substantiated abuse claims made against them. Many of those individuals are deceased; the others have been removed from public ministry.”
LoCoco said Kaul does not expect to identify prosecutable cases as part of the investigation. “To be clear, your stated intent is not to investigate crime, but to leverage your position to dictate policies to the Catholic Church,” LoCoco wrote. “This is a clear abuse of the First Amendment. Based upon our conversation, even this stated goal is based upon complete ignorance regarding what the Catholic Church has actually done over the last two decades to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors.”
Archbishop Listecki said Safe Environment training has been provided to nearly 100,000 individuals who work with the archdiocese. Safe Environment is a child abuse and maltreatment prevention program required for all clergy, staff, volunteers and lay ministers. All abuse allegations are referred to law enforcement, then subjected to archdiocesan investigation and scrutiny by a review board. Criminal background checks are required for all bishops, priests, deacons, staff and volunteers.
“We know mistakes were made in how some previous cases were handled, but today’s Church is now a model for how this issue is addressed,” Archbishop Listecki said. “The Archdiocese of Milwaukee must simply and humbly, with regret, sorrow, contrition and resolve, continue to do our best to ensure to the best of our ability that nothing like this can ever happen again. We are firm in that resolve, and we demonstrate that commitment through the actions we have taken. No institution in the country has done more to combat the societal issue of sexual abuse of minors in the past 20 years than the Catholic Church.”
Advocates for abuse survivors had pressured Kaul to open an investigation. The probe came just about a year after the March 2020 suicide of Nathan Lindstrom, who accused three priests of St. Norbert’s Abbey near Green Bay with molesting him when he was in high school in the 1980s. The Norbertine order provided $420,000 in financial support to Lindstrom over a decade, but stopped paying in May 2019, according to an investigation by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Lindstrom’s widow Karen appeared at Kaul’s April 27 press conference.
Wisconsin’s Catholic dioceses and religious orders that serve in the state have publicly identified some 175 priests who’ve had credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor lodged against them between 1950 and 2021. This includes nine priests in the Diocese of Madison, 26 in the Diocese of La Crosse, 48 in the Diocese of Green Bay, 48 in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, 24 priests from the canonry of St. Norbert Abbey, and 20 Society of Jesus (Jesuit) priests who served in Wisconsin.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!