Last week the office of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul released details about the reports it has received so far through the Department of Justice (DOJ) hotline for reports of sexual abuse and cover-up by faith leaders.
Since the phone line and website were launched in April 2021, the DOJ has collected nearly 180 reports of abuse or cover-up by clergy and faith leaders, a press release from Kaul’s office says. “The reports have concerned clergy and faith leaders of multiple religious organizations as well as some reports of abuse not related to any religious organization,” the statement said. The reports involve allegations from every Catholic diocese in Wisconsin and from other faith traditions.
Nearly 40 reports received to date are from people who have never reported before to law enforcement or religious authorities. As Awake learned in July, each report is reviewed by a team made up of law enforcement, victim services, and a prosecutor. Some cases may be handed off to local police or district attorneys for prosecution if the victim consents.
The attorney general’s office says that about 20 percent of the reports so far have been “church response” reports made by people with knowledge of how institutions have handled sexual abuse cases.
The website, SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov, and phone line, 877-222-2620, remain open and will continue to accept reports. Staff who receive calls are trauma-trained victim-services specialists.
It’s unclear how long the investigation will continue, but in July, Michelle Viste, executive director of the Office of Crime Victim Services at the Wisconsin DOJ, told Awake that she expected the hotline to remain open for at least a year, but likely longer. The investigative newsletter The Pillar reported that at least 17 attorneys general are conducting similar investigations of clergy abuse in other states.
This latest update from the Wisconsin AG’s office caused us at Awake Milwaukee to wonder: What has the process been like for victim-survivors who choose to report? We spoke with three survivors based in Wisconsin who described their experiences so far. We’ve used only their first names to protect the survivors’ identities.
“The reporting process was understandable and simple.”
Victim-survivor Renee says that when she learned that the attorney general was accepting reports from victims, she saved the link to the DOJ hotline.
“I thought I was finally going to have someone in authority possibly do something with the harm I went through,” she says. “Maybe someone would be held accountable. Maybe the Catholic Church would finally acknowledge what they did. Maybe people in my community would finally see that sexual abuse in the churches they attend. Maybe the topic would not be swept under the pew. Just maybe the State of Wisconsin would force the Church’s hand to do the right thing and the Church would start communicating, ministering, and visibly showing the love and care of the Catholic faith.”
But when it came time to fill out the report, Renee said she was suddenly afraid, remembering something her abuser used to say: “Great harm will come to you and your family if you tell anyone.”
In time she pushed past the fear and began to fill out the report on a day when her family was gone and she was home alone. “I completed the report one question, one step at a time,” she explained. “I admit that I was numb through most of the process,” but the numbness allowed her to recount the traumatic details of years of abuse, she explains.
Renee says the reporting process felt “understandable and simple.” After she submitted her form, she was contacted several times by staff from the attorney general’s office. “The staff I dealt with were very kind and understanding,” she offers.
“Very difficult for me emotionally”
Jennifer filed a report in May. “I received a phone call from a lady at the attorney general’s office to thank me and let me know how to add to my report if I thought of anything to add later,” she says. The same person called Jennifer again in August, “letting me know that a team of lawyers had reviewed my report and that they would like more information if I was willing to provide that. I explained that it would be very difficult for me emotionally to have to relive it all again in my mind and that it would take a lot for me to sit down and accomplish this,” she explains.
The staff member “responded compassionately,” and shared a timeline for the process if Jennifer decides to share more information. Jennifer says the person has called multiple time to check in with her. “So far, I haven’t gotten past three sentences,” Jennifer says. “It’s scary to put myself back there and there is no guarantee that anything will come from it. It would be easier to push myself to do this if I knew he would be convicted or even if I knew it would bring awareness to others, but there is no guarantee.”
“I guess I have to weigh the impact on my emotional health of trusting that the attorney general intends to do all that he possibly can to bring justice to survivors,” she explains. “I still don’t know if I can do it.”
“The public updates help.”
“My experiences with the DOJ have been mostly positive,” says Karen (not her real name). “Not only have I reported but have helped others navigate the experience of reporting. Reporting when one is incarcerated, not comfortable with computerized systems, unsure of what to expect or how much or little to report, or when one faces opening up wounds again, is challenging. It helps to have some support when going through the process of reporting.”
“The DOJ took time with me to answer and address both my personal concerns and inquiry for others,” Karen explains. “The public updates help. It is good to know that the investigative work continues. I have not received follow-up personally from the DOJ, however I know some have.”
“I inquired about spiritual help for individuals and asked what references they were giving, especially non-religious references,” she added. “They admitted to not having much to refer people to in the spiritual end of things, which is logical: they are a judicial system and, at least not yet, the judicial system does not seem to address spiritual injury.”
“Overall, I feel a weight lifted from me,” Karen says, “knowing that the law is recognizing the violent and manipulative acts as substantial and criminal.”
—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 Courageous Conversation about the attorney general investigation, which featured retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske.
+ Awake asked the Wisconsin Department of Justice 9 questions about the clergy and faith leader abuse hotline. Here are its answers.
+ 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.
+ Awake Executive Director Sara Larson wrote this piece for the national magazine Our Sunday Visitor: We Should Welcome Abuse Investigations, Not Fear Them.