Courageous Conversation: Understanding Wisconsin’s Clergy Abuse Investigation

Awake’s latest Courageous Conversation offered Wisconsin Catholics insights into Attorney General Josh Kaul’s recently launched statewide investigation of sexual abuse by clergy and faith leaders. 

The panelists emphasized that the investigation is likely to be difficult for members of the Church—as well as for victim-survivors. But they expressed hope that the process would create greater transparency for the Church, and lead to the possibility of healing. A recording of this event is available below.

“Things need to be brought into light. And when they’re brought into light, healing can happen,” said speaker Patty Fortney Young, a victim-survivor of childhood sexual abuse by her parish priest in Enhaut, Pennsylvania. Five girls in the Fortney family, including their baby sister, were abused by Fr. Augustine Giella, who died in 1993 at age 72 while awaiting trial for his crimes. 

Fortney Young and her sisters Lara Fortney McKeever and Teresa Fortney Miller spoke during the event about how the statewide grand jury investigation of clergy abuse in Pennsylvania allowed their story to come to light in 2018.  

Other panelists at the Courageous Conversation included retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who has worked with clergy abuse survivors for 20 years using restorative justice practices, and Patrick Hornbeck, professor of theology at Fordham University, who is particularly interested in the intersection of faith and U.S. law, and currently attending law school. 

The conversation was moderated by Awake Executive Director Sara Larson. Here are some of the main questions addressed during the discussion.

What will happen in the Wisconsin investigation?

Awake shared basics about the investigation, including the fact that the attorney general recently set up a website (SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov) and phone line (877-222-2620) for people to report abuse by clergy and faith leaders. The attorney general stated that the hotline is for reports of abuse of children or adults that has happened at any point in history, including abuse that has already been reported to authorities. People who report can choose to remain anonymous.

Kaul also called a meeting with representatives of Wisconsin’s Catholic dioceses and religious orders, notifying these groups that they would be receiving a request to turn over documents related to sexual abuse cases. It’s unclear if all dioceses and orders will comply with that request. 

“I suspect [Attorney General Josh Kaul is] going to wait and see how he’s going to proceed on the investigation once he sees what kind of response there is,” Geske offered. “He’s encouraged all kinds of people to report, not just survivors and their family members, but other people who have worked in the Church, whistleblowers, other community members. He really is trying to toss a very wide net for any prior sexual assault by religious leaders.”

Some reports could lead to prosecution in the criminal or civil courts if the statute of limitations has not expired. Geske said the attorney general’s team will likely write a detailed report of their findings. “I suspect he’s going to make some strong recommendations,” she stated. “I know he cares particularly … about survivors and … finding support for survivors.” 

Geske mentioned her hope that victim-survivors in the Latinx, Native American, and Black communities are encouraged to report. “I think we’ll see many people that we’ve not heard from before filing reports through the phone line,” Geske said. “It will be revealing to give us a sense of what has happened in Wisconsin.”

Why is this investigation happening now? 

It is not entirely clear what is driving this now, although the attorney general has received consistent pressure from family members and advocates of Nate Lindstrom, who was abused as a teenager by Norbertine priests in Green Bay, and died by suicide last year at age 45.

Geske added that previous efforts to allow victim-survivors to make claims against the Church—which led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to declare bankruptcy—are now complete. But this process didn’t yield the results that some hoped. “I think a lot of survivors and others in the community feel pretty unsatisfied with the bottom line of how the Church has handled it,” Geske said.  “Authorities in the Church maybe have not learned a lot through this whole process … so I think in part this is moving toward a different kind of accountability.”

This current investigation “is not about dollars,” she stressed. “This isn’t settlements, this is about exposing exactly what’s happened.”

How does the Wisconsin investigation differ from those in other states?

Unlike other state attorneys general, Kaul has said he intends to investigate religious orders in Wisconsin, which operate outside the diocesan structure.

“I think it’s really wise of Attorney General Kaul to be reaching out to religious orders as well,” said Patrick Hornbeck of Fordham. “I think it’s a piece of the story of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church that hasn’t yet been told nearly enough.” Hornbeck is part of the team leading an initiative at Fordham to study the impact of clergy abuse in Jesuit institutions.

Kaul’s request that people who work for the Church make reports about sexual abuse cases is also unusual, Hornbeck said.

“I know in so many cases it was a teacher in a school who saw something happen,” he explained. “It might be a secretary at a parish who saw something happen, a groundskeeper, a maintenance worker, all the way up, of course, to the people who work in the diocese offices and religious orders.”  

“I think this is a real moment of reckoning, because I don’t think there is any conflict of duty between a person as a Catholic, and a person as a citizen of the state,” he continued. “Both the state and the Church should be interested in wanting to repair what has happened in the past and in finding ways to minimize it ever happening again in the future. I think naming that and inviting folks from within the Church to come forward is particularly important.”

How does this feel for survivors?

The Fortney sisters described the experience of speaking to the grand jury in Pennsylvania about their abuse. In the 1990s, the Fortney family signed a gag order as part of a settlement with the Diocese of Harrisburg. This meant that they never spoke about the abuse to anyone—not even with each other. While they knew that their youngest sister had been abused by Giella, the older sisters had never shared that they too had been abused. 

“When we were subpoenaed, that was scary, but it was also, ‘Wow, we’re going to be able to  talk about this? Somebody’s actually going to do something about this?’ said Patty Fortney Young. “For us as a family to be able to speak, it was incredible.”

Still, Lara Fortney McKeever shared that she had mixed feelings about coming forward. She had worked hard for a successful career, and it was difficult to identify as an abuse victim. “Although it was hard for me at the beginning, I know it was the right thing to do, and I see God is taking care of me every step of the way,” she said. 

The Fortneys also stressed the importance of the legal discovery process in the Pennsylvania investigation, which provided answers that helped the family heal. They hope to get additional information through discovery in New Jersey to understand how Giella, who had a four-decade history of child sexual abuse in that state, was allowed to move on to Pennsylvania where he met the Fortneys.  

The sisters now work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse through their nonprofit, Fortneys for Healing, and explained that victim-survivors may be hesitant to report their abuse. “The average age of disclosure is 52 years old,” Patty Fortney Young said.  “People might say, ‘Why would somebody wait until their 70s or 80s?’ Well, because their step mother that abused them just died.” Or they might wait until after the death of a Catholic grandmother who warned them not to embarrass the family, she added.

They spoke about the power of disclosing abuse, even if the survivor simply shares their story with a sympathetic listener or therapist. The Fortneys said that many abuse survivors have come to them and disclosed their abuse experiences for the very first time. “Survivors … need someone to say, ‘I believe you, I believe you,’” Lara Fortney McKeever said. “We’ll believe you.”

During the Courageous Conversation, the Fortney sisters spoke about the grooming techniques used by their abuser to prime their family for abuse. Watch the recording for more.

Is the Church being unfairly targeted?

Some Catholics question why the state is not investigating public schools or scouts with the same level of scrutiny. Hornbeck emphasized that the attention to the Church makes sense, given its size and influence. “The Roman Catholic Church is the largest provider of education in the United States,” he said. “It’s one of the largest private providers of hospital care and social services in the United States. There is simply a magnitude to Catholicism.”

“One of the sad truths of the human condition is that sexual abuse happens,” he noted. “And I think the Roman Catholic Church in a variety of ways has failed historically at doing the work that needs to be done to be transparent, to reach out to victim-survivors, and to move forward. So it makes sense that the focus of the investigation be on the largest institution with this particular kind of history.”

What might justice look like?

Given the statute of limitations, many of the cases being reported now in Wisconsin may not lead to criminal convictions or civil judgements. 

But public accountability is still essential, Geske said.  “In working with survivors in restorative justice for 20 years, the survivors who I work with want to see that things are different and changed for the better as a result of what they’ve been through,” she added. They want to see structural and cultural change in the Church, and to be supported in their healing. “There are other things we as a community can do for survivors,” she added, “and we need to do it as Catholics.”

Why should Catholics welcome this investigation?

Near the end of the event, Hornbeck offered a theological perspective. “Jesus said, ‘You will know the truth and it will set you free,’” he noted.  “It’s not just that the truth liberates us, but that we have to know the truth first.” 

“If there’s a moment where we’re holding back, so that the full story isn’t told,” Hornbeck said, “I worry that we’ll be back here in three years or five years and we’ll be having the same kind of conversation.”

Geske spoke briefly about her love for the Catholic Church, and its role in her faith. She also praised the Fortney sisters for being willing to share their stories, calling them “a beacon.”

“People who have doubts,” she said, “should listen to survivors like them to understand that we need to do some work so this doesn’t happen again.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

The Top 5 Things Catholics Should Know
Awake created a list of top five things for Catholics to know about the Wisconsin Attorney General investigation, available here. At the conclusion of the Courageous Conversation, the Awake leadership team encouraged Catholics to familiarize themselves with the list, to share it through social media, and to be prepared to share the information with fellow Catholics when the topic comes up. 

2 thoughts on “Courageous Conversation: Understanding Wisconsin’s Clergy Abuse Investigation

  1. My friend sent me a connection to, and I listened to the entire show. I am elderly and less involved, but I would like to attend the next meeting and begin to give more priority to making needed changes to the Catholic Church. It’s time!

    BTW, I have thought for a long time, that it is wrong to insist on a vow of chastity. What are we doing! It’s such a strong human drive! Of course it is going to be violated! Let’s focus on changes that are needed regarding male domination, and being open to more a inclusive and nurturing church structure. The pandemic has opened lotsa opportunities for us to become aware of long ignored problems that obstruct our Creator’s intention to provide us all that we need to bring about a beautifully functioning Planet Earth!
    Let’s get our sleeves rolled up, eh! Godspeed! Lorrie Greco

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