Taking Stock of Wisconsin’s Investigation into Sexual Abuse by Faith Leaders

Last week Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) about the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigation into sexual abuse and cover-up by clergy and other faith leaders. A recording of the radio show is available here

“Awake Milwaukee is made up of many Catholics who are heartbroken and outraged at the crimes that have been committed in our Church, and we believe it’s our responsibility to work from within the Church to address these issues,” Larson told The Morning Show host Kate Archer Kent last week. “We’re doing education and advocacy and support for survivors. Really our broader mission is about reshaping the culture of the Church. We’re Catholics who want to do the right thing in the face of all of this. We recognize that the path forward for the Church has to come through transparency and accountability and justice. We’ve been very supportive of this investigation.” 

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (above) launched the investigation in April 2021, encouraging abuse survivors, their loved ones, and people with inside knowledge of how churches handle sexual abuse cases to make reports through a new website and phone line. By October, Kaul announced that his office had received nearly 180 reports related to sexual abuse in churches. 

The WPR show also included an interview with Peter Isley, founding member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and program director of Nate’s Mission. Two weeks ago, Isley produced boxes of documents that he said were related to sexual abuse cases in Wisconsin and shared with Nate’s Mission by whistleblowers. He and Sarah Pearson, deputy director of Nate’s Mission, delivered copies of the documents to Kaul’s office in Madison and to district attorneys’ offices around Wisconsin.

How Do I Make a Report?
To make a report about sexual abuse by faith leaders in Wisconsin or share details about how your church handles sex abuse cases, visit SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov or call 877-222-2620. Staff who receive calls are trauma-trained victim-services specialists. Awake interviewed survivors about their experience reporting to the Wisconsin hotline.

Isley and Pearson hope to push Kaul to follow through on promises he made last April. “It’s been nine months since this investigation was launched,” Isley said. “Promises were made to survivors, to victims, our families, our organization … that there was going to be full accountability, that the attorney general was going to take the evidence wherever it leads, that no information is too small, that it’s going to be followed up.”

In the WPR interview, Isley also said that the documents from whistleblowers show there are “literally hundreds of alleged abusers that have simply not been investigated by anyone but the Catholic Church.” The people named are not only clergy, but also “teachers and choir directors and individuals … that have worked or volunteered in the church,” he added. 

Archbishop Jerome Listecki of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee expressed opposition to the statewide investigation last June. In his regular column, sent by email to area Catholics, he said that the Archdiocese will “voluntarily provide access to documents and information on any living individual against whom a new allegation is made.” But he also expressed “significant doubt that the Attorney General has the legal authority to conduct such an investigation.”

“We have legitimate concerns that his inquiry is directly targeting only the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Listecki wrote. “We have accepted our past history and worked so vigilantly to correct how things are handled, but it’s the Church that is continually targeted.” 

Last week’s WPR program also included an interview with Patricia Gallagher Marchant, MSW, LCSW, a Milwaukee psychotherapist and survivor of sexual abuse by her parish priest when she was seven years old.

“I’m thrilled that Wisconsin survivors are responding and reporting, and I’m hoping more will continue to have the courage to do so,” Gallagher Marchant explained. “It’s very difficult to disclose the horror we each suffered and it is horrible to be sexually abused as a child.” She added that recalling these experiences can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder and other significant problems for victim-survivors. “Let’s remember what we’re talking about is incredibly serious, and my hope is that all Catholics of good conscience will stand with us to clean up the pain and anguish and make everything transparent. That’s how true healing happens.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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