This morning Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced the start of a statewide investigation of sexual abuse by religious leaders in the Catholic Church and other faith communities. The announcement came after Kaul met Monday with representatives of all five Catholic dioceses and several religious orders in Wisconsin.
“I know there are survivors, friends and family members of survivors, and supporters of survivors who have waited for years for a fair and independent review of clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin, and that’s what we are announcing today,” Kaul said during a press conference. “We are conducting this review to get greater accountability and to promote healing for victims. And we’re conducting this review to improve the response to abuse and hopefully to prevent future cases of abuse.” (Video of the press conference is available here.)
He was joined on the steps of the State Capitol in Madison by clergy abuse survivors and advocates, as well as Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee. Larson spoke at the event on behalf of Catholics “who are heartbroken and outraged about the crimes that have been committed in our Church,” she said. (Video and text of Larson’s remarks can be found here.)
“Our Catholic faith calls us to stand up in the face of injustice and act in solidarity with those who are suffering,” she added, “so I ask my fellow Catholics to join me in welcoming this investigation and in facing whatever might be revealed with both courage and compassion.”
Also on the Capitol steps was Karen Lindstrom, wife of Nate Lindstrom, who was sexually abused by Norbertine priests in Green Bay as a 14-year-old and died by suicide at age 45 in March 2020. Other speakers included Peter Isley, program director of Green Bay-based Nate’s Mission, and founding member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and Patricia Gallagher Marchant, a Milwaukee-based psychotherapist who was sexually abused by her parish priest as a seven-year-old student at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Monona, Wisconsin.
“My family and I have been waiting for years for this opportunity,” Marchant said during the press conference. “For those of us who have survived this horror, to have the attorney general of our state and the Department of Justice stand with us … is a massively healing opportunity.” She spoke about the institutional resistance she and her parents faced from the Church when she reported her abuse, and her wish that her parents were alive to witness state officials addressing this issue.
She also urged Church officials to cooperate with the investigation. “Make amends,” Marchant said. “That’s how truth and reconciliation really happens.”
How Will the Investigation Unfold?
Kaul encouraged abuse survivors and their families, or anyone who has information about the Church’s response to abuse, to make reports through a new Department of Justice website, SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov, or phone line, 877-222-2620. Both offer people who report a “safe and confidential means to obtain support from DOJ’s Office of Crime Victim Services and referrals to available services,” according to a statement issued by the attorney general’s office.
Investigators will use a “victim-centric” process in taking reports from victim-survivors, Kaul explained, and he encouraged survivors to come forward no matter when their abuse took place. Reports from other faith traditions can also be made through this website and phone line, Kaul added.
More than 20 states have already launched similar statewide reviews of clergy sexual abuse, including the state of Pennsylvania in 2018. The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) studied how other states conducted their investigations to design the process here, Kaul said. In addition to collecting reports from victim-survivors, the DOJ will request and review any documents from Wisconsin dioceses and religious orders related to sexual abuse cases.
“I want to stress that we strongly encourage anyone who knows anything to report,” Kaul said. “No detail is too small.” He also asked victim-survivors who have reported in the past to make new reports.
Both Isley and Marchant said that the reporting process would be “safe and confidential.”
“Your story matters,” Marchant said. “You will get the support you have deserved forever.”
Response from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee joined the Monday meeting with Kaul to discuss the investigation, and noted in a statement this morning that this investigation involves “a review of historical cases, not any new reports or cases.”
“There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have not already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse,” said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff of Archbishop Jerome Listecki, in today’s statement. “We also do not understand the legal basis for the inquiry. We also question why only the Catholic Church is being singled out for this type of review when sexual abuse is a societal issue. The Church has already voluntarily provided the names of perpetrators and has made the correctives necessary to do whatever is possible to make sure this can never happen again.”
In her remarks during the attorney general’s press conference this morning, Awake’s Larson quoted from the organization’s Letter to Survivors, which offers an apology from members of the Catholic Church to those who have been abused by Church leaders. “We know that we can’t take away the past, but as members of the Catholic Church, we are committed to standing with you now,” Larson said. “We hope that this investigation brings you some measure of justice and peace.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Editor’s Note: We will continue to follow the story closely, and encourage you to check the blog frequently for updates.