As Wisconsin Clergy Abuse Investigation Begins, Survivors Respond with Hope—and Reservations

When Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (pictured above) announced in Madison last week that he was launching a statewide investigation of sexual abuse by clergy and other faith leaders, he was flanked by two survivors of clergy abuse who were clearly moved by the event.

“This is a pretty emotional day for me, and I think a lot of survivors,” said Peter Isley, program director of Green Bay-based Nate’s Mission, and founding member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “It was 28 years ago that I first went to a microphone and talked about what happened to me. I just want to really thank these prosecutors for what they’re about to do.”

Patricia Gallagher Marchant, a Milwaukee-based psychotherapist who was sexually abused by her parish priest at age 7, added that she wished her parents were alive to witness the investigation. “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 for all,” she said.

Both Marchant and Isley urged victim-survivors to report their abuse to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) through a new confidential website and phone line, SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov and 877-222-2620.

Isley noted that fellow survivors may be hesitant. “I know many of you have gone through this before,” he said. “You’ve gone to the Church, you’ve gone to the police, you’ve gone to therapists. I know how difficult it’s going to be for many of you to come forward again. I want you to know this time is different.” He and Marchant both stated that they trust that the reporting process is set up to be safe, confidential, and supportive to survivors. At the press conference, the attorney general described the reporting system as “victim-centric,” and said that his team aims to connect people who report with resources such as counseling.

In the days following the announcement, Awake spoke with several victim-survivors of clergy abuse in Wisconsin to get their takes on the statewide review of cases. We heard a range of reactions, reminding us that survivors have a variety of experiences and perspectives, and will not all approach this investigation in the same way.  

A Surge of Gratitude

When Jennifer (who asked that we not use her last name) learned about the attorney general investigation, she teared up. “I was so, so grateful,” she says. “I don’t even have the words to tell you how grateful I was. Finally someone cares. Finally someone might do something.” Abused and assaulted as an adult by her parish priest in the Diocese of Green Bay, Jennifer is planning to make a report to the Wisconsin DOJ. Although her abuser was laicized, he has not faced criminal charges. “My abuser is still at large in Wisconsin,” she says. “He’s never paid for what he did.”

She hopes her abuser and others are prosecuted as a result of the investigation. “Full justice won’t be served until the other side of heaven,” Jennifer explains. But “the small amount of justice that can be done on this side needs to be done, not only for the hearts and the healing of the people that they abused, but for everybody.” She notes that many of her family members have suffered tremendously knowing that she was abused.

Jennifer appreciated hearing from Awake Executive Director Sara Larson, who spoke during the attorney general’s press conference. “She described abuse as ‘life-altering,’ and that’s absolutely true. I will never be the same. I’ve lost my innocence. I’ve lost my belief that priests are good people.” She says few people truly understand how the power differential between priest and parishioner sets the stage for abuse. She saw the priest as God’s representative, and he used what he knew about her own struggles to manipulate her.  

A Long Time Coming

When the investigation was announced, some noted that it was long overdue. “The investigation by the state into the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse is the right thing to do. I am sad that it’s taken so long and sad that it has come to this,” says Kathryn Walczyk, who was abused at age 7 by a priest from St. Norbert Abbey near Green Bay. Yet she is guarded about what the investigation alone can accomplish. “Like all social and moral justice movements, laws and procedures contribute to a just society, and yet only an investment at a deeper human level will bring about authentic and lasting change.”

Junia (not her real name) lives in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee but was groomed and abused as a teenager by a priest in an out-of-state parish. She is similarly doubtful about what the attorney general can achieve. “I hope the investigation is able to get to the depth of the issue, so people can feel assured that there are no more hidden surprises,” she says. “I just don’t know if it is possible given the great divide that exists between many survivors and the Church and its leadership. When trust has been so completely shattered, I’m not certain it can be repaired.” 

Still, Awake has heard from multiple victim-survivors who have already decided to make reports to the Wisconsin DOJ. One of them, Deborah (who asked that we not use her last name), was abused as a child by a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She submitted her report via the website, SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov, which she said was “less traumatic for me” than making the report by phone. Because she did not receive any response, she made a follow-up call. “The person who answered the phone was very kind, patient, and seemed willing to listen,” she says. “She told me I may not hear any follow up for many weeks, if at all. However, I could call back at any time for any reason.”

Deborah’s abuser was tried and found guilty in Milwaukee in 2008, but he is not listed on the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s list of accused clergy because he was incardinated in a different diocese. The attorney general encouraged survivors to submit reports to the DOJ even if they have reported their abuse in the past. “I don’t know that I felt much better after reporting as I’ve been through this before,” Deborah acknowledges. “But perhaps this time the Archdiocese will be forced to face their own lies and coverups in a public way.”

A Chance to Tell Their Stories

Brenda, a Milwaukee-based survivor of clergy abuse in adulthood (who asked that we not use her last name), felt positive about the attorney general’s press conference. “As I listened to AG Kaul announce his plans to launch a probe of clergy and faith leader sexual abuse, I felt as if a mustard seed of hope had been planted in my garden of painful memories,” she wrote in an email.

Due to the statute of limitations, she does not hold out hope that the deacon who assaulted her will be prosecuted, but she still sees the investigation as a possible route to healing. “For a long time, I thought the existence of Wisconsin’s [statute of limitations] meant there was no possibility of a historical record that would provide validation of what happened to me and countless others,” she says. “I thought my voice would be forever silenced. What is special about this probe is that it offers some sense of justice even for those cases that cannot be prosecuted.”

“For the vast majority of us whose abuse occurred years ago, it offers an opportunity to tell our stories to a third party that will assess all of these reports in light of what we have learned in recent years about sex abuse,” she adds. “And from this assessment, we will be able to improve how we address this grave harm to society.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Editor’s Note: If you are a survivor who would like to share your perspective on the Wisconsin Attorney General’s investigation of clergy abuse or your experience of making a report to the investigation hotline, please contact Awake.



Don’t Miss This Opportunity to Learn More

Please join Awake for our next virtual Courageous Conversations event, “Understanding the Wisconsin Attorney General Investigation,” 7 to 8:30 pm CDT, on Thursday, May 20. Visit the Courageous Conversations page for more details and to register.

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