Wisconsin AG and Milwaukee archdiocese at odds, as new abuse allegations come forward

News: Archdiocese of Milwaukee

Wisconsin’s attorney general gave an update Wednesday on his ongoing probe into clerical sexual abuse in the state. While similar investigations are underway in 13 states, Wisconsin’s stands out because of sharp pushback from the state’s biggest diocese, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which has charged that the investigation is illegal and unfairly targeting Catholics.

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In an announcement Wednesday, Attorney General Josh Kaul said a hotline in the state has received almost 180 allegations of abuse or cover-up in the Catholic dioceses of the state, and in other religious denominations as well. 

Almost 40 of those allegations had not previously been reported to law enforcement or religious leaders, Kaul said, and will be reviewed for possible prosecution. 

The attorney general did not give an update on the rest of his project — a review of Catholic diocesan records that aims to determine whether dioceses have been negligent in investigating and addressing clerical sexual abuse in the past, and whether diocesan policies are sufficient to address allegations of abuse.

Kaul launched his investigation in April; at least 17 other states have launched similar investigations since the publication of a 2018 report on clerical sexual abuse was released by a Pennsylvania grand jury, five have issued reports or closed their investigations. But while dioceses in most states have readily cooperated with requests for files and information, Wisconsin’s AG said in July that participation in his state has been “uneven.”  

While Kaul did not name any specific diocese, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has expressed direct opposition to Kaul’s inquiry, calling it anti-Catholic and illegal.

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

The archdiocese says 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 of Archdiocese of Milwaukee files 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.”

In short, the Milwaukee archdiocese told the state’s attorney general it did not not intend to participate in a process it believed to be illegal, unjust, and unreasonable. It offered instead to provide information regarding new allegations of abuse made against people who are still alive.

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

The archdiocesan position has faced criticism. Awake Milwaukee, an organization which advocates for abuse survivors, lamented that “the Archdiocese’s legalistic response is not what we would hope to hear from the shepherds of our Church. We are more concerned about the pain suffered by victim-survivors than we are about possible anti-Catholic bias.”

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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 running for governor.

Investigations in some states have referred cases for criminal prosecution; Missouri referred 12 cases for prosecution in 2019, Virginia and Rhode Island have each referred one, Michigan’s investigation has seen 11 men, nearly all of them priests, charged with felonies.

Wisconsin’s attorney general has not indicated when he expects his investigation to be concluded, or if the state’s hotline and investigation have yet led to criminal charges.