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Abuse advocates: Wisconsin AG 'walking back' promises on diocesan abuse probe

Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul. Courtesy photo.

A Wisconsin advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse says the state’s attorney general has broken his word, downplaying a promised investigation into the state’s five dioceses as a “review” of abuse allegations.

While the attorney general has previously referred to the probe as an “investigation,” a state official said in March that the word “review” is more appropriate, adding that “investigation” would be “too strong of a word” to describe the initiative.

Advocacy group Nate’s Mission says the change in language came while the attorney general’s office claimed its inquiry was not well-funded, declined contact and documents from whistleblowers, and decided not to push in court for diocesan personnel records which might contain evidence of wrongdoing.

“Survivors in Wisconsin for 30 years have been asking for an investigation like this. In the early 1990s, survivors in Wisconsin were some of the first in the country to come forward about abuse. Attorney general after attorney general has declined to open such an investigation,” Sarah Pearson, deputy director of Nate’s Mission, told The Pillar.

“And now after Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has opened one, over a year later, he appears to be walking back on his promises - refusing to refer to his initiative as an ‘investigation’ and declining to use the authority of his office to obtain Church evidence and compel the testimony of Church officials.”

For their part, Church officials in Wisconsin have pushed back against the state’s probe since it was announced last year, charging that the investigation is illegal and anti-Catholic.

An attorney for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee said last year that dioceses would not comply with requests for their files, adding that an “unwarranted investigation in the absence of any legal authority” will “not lead to healing.”

Attorney General Kaul announced in April 2021 that his office would pursue information about clergy sexual abuse in Wisconsin’s five dioceses, and the prospect of cover-ups.

The attorney general said he hoped Wisconsin dioceses would “cooperate with the investigation,” and claimed that “there has never been a statewide independent investigation of the issue of clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin.”

Advocates at Nate’s Mission say Kaul’s 2021 announcement was initially promising, because they believed the attorney general would look into the prospect that officials in and outside the Church had been negligent in handling sexual abuse allegations.

Nate’s Mission told The Pillar that the attorney general’s office promised abuse survivors the investigation would be thorough, and asked for their public support.

“We were cautiously optimistic,” Pearson said, adding that some abuse survivors and advocates were willing to express direct support for the state’s investigation.

Peter Isely, a program director at “Nate’s Mission” and a survivor of childhood clerical sexual assault, told The Pillar that during a meeting before the probe was launched, a deputy attorney general “turned to me and said, ‘We’re very serious about this, Peter. We’re incredibly serious about this. And we want your blessing.’”

“That’s the word, ‘blessing.’”

“[He said], ‘We cannot do this without you.’ So that’s bringing people in to validate what you’re doing. And it was fine when [Kaul] had invited us all to stand up with him, when he made the big announcement and called it an investigation. But now he’s nowhere to be found on this. He’s not contacting us. They’re not talking to us anymore.”

Nate’s Mission says the state’s investigation began to stall soon after it started, when the Wisconsin dioceses decided they would not turn over records the attorney general’s office had requested.

In a June letter declining the records request, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s lawyer said the attorney general’s effort was “not an investigation that incidentally targets the Catholic Church, it is an investigation that targets the Catholic Church.”

The archdiocese said the focus of the attorney general’s investigation is “not to identify prosecutable cases….but to leverage your position to dictate policies to the Catholic Church.”

The investigation “is well beyond the Attorney General’s statutory authority,” and an “abuse of the First Amendment,” the archdiocese said, and “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.”

In a letter to Milwaukee Catholics, Archbishop Jerome Listecki wrote in June that its cases of sexual abuse have already been reviewed by legal authorities, including an exhaustive review by a panel that included the representatives of abuse survivors, which happened as part of its 2013 bankruptcy proceedings.

Listecki said the archdiocese would cooperate “with the Attorney General in any proper inquiry he might undertake,” adding that “the Church could be a model for others to follow, and the Attorney General could be investigating ongoing crimes from today, not from decades past.”

The attorney general said he was “disappointed” that the archdiocese “declined the opportunity to cooperate.”

But Nate’s Mission told The Pillar that Kaul’s disappointment did not translate into action.

Pearson said that to keep his promises to survivors, the attorney general should have fought in court for a subpoena of archdiocesan records, especially when survivors reportedly alleged abuse cover-ups involving former Archbishop Rembert Weakland, former diocesan officials, along with law enforcement officials and prosecutors.

Kaul should push for records and testimony from Church officials, Pearson said, because “both [are] essential components to any investigation that truly examines the full scope and magnitude of clergy sexual abuse, and how it was enabled by generations of Church leaders, law enforcement officials, and community elites.”

Pearson pointed to a 1983 archdiocesan memo that recounts a prosecutor advising archdiocesan officials to remove a priest accused of abuse from ministry for five years, and then consider returning him to ministry “if no complaints come forth in that time.”

Pearson said the attorney general’s office should look for other records like that one, which could lead to criminal charges among church and civil officials.

At the very least, she said, there should be a full and public account of whether civil officials acted negligently regarding clerical abuse allegations.

“Why is the DA directing the Church on when to put abusive clergy in ministry, and when to take them out?”

“That’s a glimpse of the historical alliance between law enforcement and the Church in these instances,” Pearson said.

“And we had been really clear with Kaul’s administration that if they were going to conduct an investigation, it would have to be comprehensive. It has to look into these types of things, because this abuse didn’t just sprout up or appear. It was enabled by people in positions of great power in our community — and as a result, thousands of kids in this state were abused.”

Pearson said the attorney’s general office has also failed to return calls from Church whistleblowers aiming to provide information about published lists of credibly accused clerics, and has been unwilling to make use of documents provided by those whistleblowers.

The group says the attorney general’s office turned over documents provided by a whistleblower to attorneys for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, even while Nate’s Mission alleges that those documents contain evidence of sexual abuse.

For his part, Attorney General Kaul told Action 2 News this week that he has not changed the parameters of his probe since it began.

“The process that we’re engaging right now is the same process that we’ve been engaging in since this review started, and that is, we’re encouraging people across the state of Wisconsin who have any information on clergy and faith leader abuse to report that,” Kaul said Aug. 8.

Nate’s Mission says Kaul and his office have backed away from calling the probe an investigation, as they aim to temper expectations.

They pointed to a March 2022 email to an abuse survivor, sent by Lynda Jackson, a sexual assault and abuse victim services specialist at the state’s Department of Justice.

Of the attorney general’s probe, Jackson told the survivor that “maybe investigation is too strong of a word, correction reviewing all cases and information given.” [sic]

“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 extend from many of these cases. I wish that could be done, but the reality is $$$,” Jackson wrote.

Isely told The Pillar the problem goes deeper than semantics.

“That word ‘investigation’ is so critical because an investigation implies that you’re gonna use the legal power of your office. So now it’s like, that’s what they’re not gonna do. They’re not gonna investigate. They don’t want these documents,” Isely said.

“And that explains why the bishops are just openly saying that they’re not going to participate. They called the bluff. They knew that the attorney general wasn’t going to push them there. So they just openly say ‘we’re not gonna cooperate.’”

Pearson was not sympathetic to the state’s claim of budget limitations.

She told The Pillar that before the investigation began, lawyers in the attorney general’s office had assured abuse survivors that “they had the funding. So I would say that this is more that they are unwilling to put themselves in a position where they have to fight for it.”

“A budget is a statement of your priorities, right? I guess this is just not a priority.”

The state attorney general’s office has not yet responded to The Pillar’s request for comment.

Nate’s Mission is not the only critic of the attorney general’s inquiry.

Archbishop Listecki’s June 2021 letter to Wisconsin Catholics also took issue with Kaul’s review, from a very different perspective.

“There is significant doubt that the Attorney General has the legal authority to conduct such an investigation. 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 is continually targeted,” the archbishop wrote.

In another letter sent to the attorney general’s office, Milwaukee’s archdiocesan attorney Frank LoCoCo wrote that “the investigation improperly targets the Roman Catholic Church and appears to be a product of antiCatholic bigotry. This is a violation of the Establishment Clause which precludes the disfavoring of a particular religion.”

“While the Attorney General has, when pressed, offered platitudes that the investigation will address other groups, in every official statement the Attorney General makes clear that the Catholic Church is the target of the investigation. The Attorney General’s tenuous reliance on neutral laws of general applicability, does not permit a targeted and intentional investigation,” LoCoCo wrote.

LoCoCo also argued that the state’s prosecutor had no authority to conduct an investigation when he had “ already conceded that he expects no criminal prosecutions by his office.”

“In your May 10, 2021 interview on Wisconsin Public Radio, you acknowledged that you do not expect to identify prosecutable cases, but rather you expect to use the investigation to pressure the AOM and the other Catholic Dioceses to adopt and/or change certain policies. To be clear, your stated intent is not to investigate crime, but to leverage your position to dictate policies to the Catholic Church. This is a clear abuse of the First Amendment,” the attorney wrote.

The attorney emphasized that the archdiocese has taken considerable steps to address safe environments and clerical or employee sexual abuse, both before and after its 2011 bankruptcy filings, and had worked to address the needs of abuse survivors.

By email this week, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee told The Pillar that the archdiocese “will continue to assist with any allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a living archdiocesan priest. The attorney general has not informed us that he has received any.”

“Neither of the cases that have been referred for prosecution have anything to do with the Catholic Church, which is important to mention … In addition, the attorney general has not said whether any of the reports of abuse his office has received involve the Catholic Church,” the spokesperson added.

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee. Credit: sulfur/wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0

Charles Nemeth is director of the Center for Criminal Justice, Law, & Ethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

On the question of the First Amendment, Nemeth told The Pillar that “you can’t hide behind the immunity of the Church when you’re engaged in fraud.”

“The question of the First Amendment has been dealt with in a variety of jurisdictions, and if there is fraudulent behavior going on, hiding facts, or not dealing with complaints when they’re raised, then you can’t depend on any protection from the First Amendment for that.”

Addressing the idea that the Catholic Church might be singled out, Nemeth said “it is a fact that in some dioceses in Wisconsin and in other states, there has been intentional, full-scale, unbridled deception in handling these cases. And that’s one of the reasons why legislatures are so aggressively going after these bishops and how they’ve handled these things, because they are engaged in falsehood and fraud.”

At times, “there’s so many of them, I’m starting to wonder who the honest [bishops] are. There’s so few that are straightforward, that turn around and look you in the eye and say ‘We’re going to hang [abusers] like they should be hung.’ Instead they manipulate and play these games — these unceasing amount of games of obtuse and obscure Constitutional protections. And I think those days are over.”

“I think most of the claims of selective discrimination just fall flat, because there are too many examples of pedophilac behavior in the Church to claim that you’re being unfairly targeted. I find that argument disingenuous.”

“I do not pull punches on how the Church has handled this. I think it’s the most disgraceful, depressing — the damage that has been done, not only to the victims of pedophilia, the victims of sexual abuse, but also the trust factor between the laity and our so-called shepherds. It’s deep.”

“The deception is extraordinary,” Nemeth added. “I will not refrain from my critique of the Church — not as Mystical Body, not that way, but of the institutional episcopacy, which at times has operated like an organized crime family.”

But as a matter of law, Nemeth objected to a broad-based records request from a state prosecutor.

“What does concern me is the question of the investigation as a ‘fishing expedition.’ And in a broad-based sense, it becomes almost like an unreasonable search and seizure, in that you’re demanding that every diocese give you information on every imaginable case, and it’s not particularized enough. It’s too sweeping, and that troubles me.”

“If you have particularized information, and your request is based on a particular case with real facts, and bona fide probable cause, I don’t think the Church would be able to avoid those requests. But if they’re just making sweeping requests to send over all your files, you’d have to push back against that,” the lawyer said.

“No matter how much I might sympathize with this request, it’s still so globally sweeping that it disturbs me, legally. And anytime that you seek to initiate any prosecution of anything or anybody, it has to be particularized. It has to be specific to some series of facts. It can’t be this wide net that you throw over an entire body of churches, and bishops, and priests, and demand that you get everything from them.”

“I would much prefer that these requests concentrate on the cases that they have an evidentiary basis for proceeding on, not just a speculation or a suspicion,” he added. “I would highly favor a particularized process on things. When the state has unwieldy central power, it’s concerning.”

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Sara Larson, executive director of the advocacy organization Awake Milwaukee, told The Pillar that she’s disappointed Wisconsin’s dioceses did not make records available. But Larson said she hopes an eventual report from the attorney general’s office will benefit the Church’s reform, and lead to some measure of justice for abuse victims.

“I wish the Wisconsin dioceses had chosen to cooperate and give investigators access to their files. I’m disappointed that didn’t happen, and I understand that this may limit how the investigation can proceed,” Larson told The Pillar.

“There are many victim-survivors, and other Catholics who care about this issue, who are really disappointed that there hasn't been greater cooperation by church leaders. However, I am hopeful that there may still be positive outcomes from this investigation.”

“The investigation has led to two criminal prosecutions of non-Catholic faith leaders, which is a positive result. But I know people who have reported abuse by Catholic clergy who have never faced legal consequences for their actions. I hope that there are opportunities for those facts to be made public and for there to be justice in those cases. But we don’t know yet what that justice might look like or what the final outcome of this investigation will be,” she added.

Beyond Wisconsin, at least 17 other states have launched investigations in clerical sexual abuse since the publication of a 2018 report on the subject was released by a Pennsylvania grand jury. At least six states have issued reports or closed their investigations.

State investigations into the possibility of abuse and cover-up in the Church have generally been met with praise from victims’ advocacy groups, and with promises to cooperate from bishops — although bishops in Nebraska pushed back on a subpoena that initially required 22 years of records, some of which were protected by medical privacy laws, be turned over three days after they were requested.

Some Church officials have told The Pillar that state investigations have been useful in the reform of internal processes and perspectives. But critics have questioned whether investigations launched in 2018 and 2019 will eventually draw to a close and issue reports, and have raised the concern that files shared with state investigators  — even of priests who are not accused of abuse or misconduct —  could become public through open-records requests.

And some have suggested that, in the aftermath of the 2018 Theodore McCarrick scandal, such investigations could be politically motivated — noting that Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro, who released in 2018 a report that prompted national outcry, is now the frontrunner in the race to be the state’s next governor.

In Wisconsin, Pearson told The Pillar she thinks political motivations were part of what got Kaul’s investigation started last year.

The attorney general’s office “lacked the moral courage to do the right thing, even if it was gonna be tough, and be a fight, and cost money — even if it was going to ruffle some feathers. And it’s sad,” Pearson said.

Pearson added that she believes the state prosecutors did not want to take on aggressive archdiocesan attorneys, and expected they would not prevail in a “politicized” legal battle with the Church.

But “there is also a political element to this whole saga that hasn’t been addressed and it needs to be,” Pearson told The Pillar. “[Kaul] announced this because I think there was a great deal of pressure — you know, it was something that would make him look good.”

“He made sexual assault a huge issue in his [2018] campaign … sexual assault was a big deal in the campaign. So I think it was politically expedient at the time,” Pearson added.

Isely agreed.

“I don’t know why [Kaul] said he was going to do this. Just other than he wants to be reelected! He thought this would get him elected!”

Kaul told local media this week that “politics plays no role in this whatsoever. We’ve been clear since the start that we’re going to follow the facts where they lead.”

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