What’s Happening with the Wisconsin Investigation of Abuse by Clergy and Religious Leaders?

Last week the office of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced that it has received more than 100 reports so far in its statewide investigation of clergy and faith leader abuse.

The investigation began in April when the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) unveiled a website, SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov, and phone line, 877-222-2620, for victim-survivors to report sexual abuse by clergy or faith leaders. Kaul has encouraged family members of survivors or people with knowledge of how churches have handled abuse cases to make reports as well. 

Awake spoke with Michelle Viste, executive director of the Office of Crime Victim Services at the Wisconsin DOJ to find out more about the reports collected over the last two and a half months, and to learn what happens when a person contacts the DOJ to make a report.

Who is Making Reports?

Viste could not share specifics about individual reports, but says the DOJ team has received reports from adults of all ages, including those who previously reported their abuse to authorities, and those “who have never told anybody about the abuse they experienced,” she says. People who have contacted the tip lines have described abuse that took place in Catholic settings and other faith traditions, as well as abuse independent of any religious organization. “I think people view this as a safe place that they can talk to somebody and get support for abuse that they’ve suffered,” Viste explains. “They seem to not know where else to go.”

She adds that her team has also received “church response” reports, in which people have shared information about how specific churches have handled sexual or physical abuse within their organizations.

What Happens If I Call the Tip Line?

The toll-free phone line, 877-222-2620, is open from 7:45 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday. People who call after hours can leave a voicemail, and if they share contact information they will receive a call back, Viste says. The victim services specialist who handles calls “has significant experience in working with survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence,” Viste explains. Callers “provide us with as little or as much information as they want to provide,” and have the option to make their report anonymously. The length of the conversation depends on how much the person who reports wants to talk; some calls last up to two hours, Viste adds.

What Happens If I Make an Online Report?

Like those who call the toll-free line, people who make reports via the online form at SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov can decide how much information to share and have the option to remain anonymous. The form takes some time to complete, Viste warns. If the person filing the report needs to take a break before the process is complete, they can log out and will receive a numerical code allowing them to return to the form later. “They still can remain anonymous, even if they enter that code,” she says.

People reporting on behalf of someone else or sharing details about how a church has addressed abuse receive different questions than victim-survivors. All reporters are asked if they would like a return call. If they do, “our victim services specialist does follow up with them, within a day or two,” Viste says.

This rapid response was not possible early in the investigation. When the initiative first was launched, we got a lot of reports right away and it was taking us a week or two weeks, sometimes, to get back to people,” Viste acknowledges. “Right now we’re able to get back to people pretty quickly, on the same day, or within a day or two, to check in with them, see how they’re doing and connect them with resources” if needed. The victim services specialist can also answer questions people may have about their report or what might happen next.

What Kind of Resources Are Available to People Who Report Abuse?

Viste says her team can connect people with a sexual assault service provider in their local community, a first step in helping them access resources such as counseling. “Honestly, many times the people who are contacting us have already connected with a counselor or a therapist,” she notes. “They’re not necessarily looking for that, but some people are.”

If A Person Has Reported Their Abuse to Authorities in the Past, Why Report Again?

The goal of this investigation is to “collect as much information as we can, not only about … the abuse that victims have suffered, but also the church’s response,” Viste says. The attorney general has said he intends to produce a final report summarizing the investigation’s findings. “Having reports from people who have reported before and people who haven’t reported before helps you get the big picture of what’s happened, and how the church has responded in Wisconsin,” Viste explains.

Some survivors find the opportunity to re-tell their story valuable, particularly if they were dissatisfied with how the church or other officials responded, Viste adds. “They say, ‘You know, it’s great to talk to somebody who believes me, supports me, validates what I’m saying. I didn’t get that in the past.”

Who Reviews the Reports?

Each report is reviewed by a multidisciplinary team that includes a prosecutor, a victim services specialist or victim advocate, and a law enforcement officer, Viste explains. “Some of the things they would be looking at would be: is the case within the statute of limitations? Is the person on the credibly accused list for whatever diocese this happened in? Is this victim providing us information that would be useful in the final report? Is there more information that we need? Has there been a report to law enforcement?” The information then goes to a second multidisciplinary team to decide next steps. Should the report be sent on to law enforcement? Is more information needed from the Church? In some cases, the team may “try to talk with the Church to see if they would be willing to add the person to the credibly accused list,” Viste adds.

How Long Will the Phone Line and Website Remain Open?

Viste says staff will continue to take phone and online reports for the foreseeable future. “Initially the attorney general said this is going to take at least a year, probably a year and a half, maybe even longer,” she explains, noting that similar initiatives in other states have lasted two or more years.

What About Victim-Survivors of Color?

During a recent Awake panel discussion about the attorney general investigation, retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske expressed her hope that people from Latinx, Native American, and Black communities are encouraged to report and not overlooked in the investigation.

Viste says the attorney general’s communications staff has been working to share information about the investigation in these communities. “We know that the victims are… not one age, not one race,” she states. “They’re not from one specific community. We want to make sure that we reach everybody in an effort to get all victims who feel comfortable coming forward and reporting to us.”

Should I Make a Report?

“Any little bit of information is helpful and helps us understand and see the big picture,” Viste says. “To be successful, we need people to come forward and provide us with information.”

No detail is too small, she adds. “Once we put it together with the other information that we have, we can see a bigger picture. Even if it is small, we would like to hear it.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Learn More About Wisconsin’s Statewide Investigation of Clergy and Faith Leader Abuse

To educate yourself about the attorney general’s investigation, check out this recent information from Awake:

+ 5 Things Catholics Should Know about the Wisconsin Investigation. A quick summary.

+ A summary of Awake’s recent Courageous Conversation about the attorney general investigation, which featured retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske.

+ When the Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced it would not cooperate with the AG request for documents, Awake shared ways for Catholics to show support for survivors.

+ Remarks from Awake Executive Director Sara Larson the same day the attorney general’s investigation of clergy and faith leader abuse was announced in Madison.

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