Two Years Into Wisconsin’s Faith Leader Investigation, McCarrick is Charged, Survivors Can Still Report

Last week former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was charged in Wisconsin with fourth-degree sexual assault. The criminal charge was based on a report made by McCarrick’s victim, now in his 60s, who revealed that when he was 19, McCarrick fondled him during a 1977 trip to Lake Geneva, near Wisconsin’s border with Illinois.

This charge coincides with the second anniversary of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s ongoing statewide investigation of sexual abuse by religious leaders in the Catholic Church and other faith communities, launched by Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul in April 2021.

And these events are unfolding as Catholics in Maryland grapple with the recently released report by their attorney general, summarizing his five-year investigation of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The investigation found that more than 600 young people were sexually abused by more than 150 priests, deacons, and other church leaders between the 1940s and 2002.

When the charge against McCarrick was announced last week, Milwaukee psychotherapist Patricia Marchant says she felt relief for the victim-survivor who was assaulted. Marchant not only works with many sexual abuse survivors to help them heal, but she was also sexually abused by her parish priest, Lawrence Trainor, as a seven-year-old student at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Monona, Wisconsin. “I was massively relieved to hear that [the victim] made a report,” she says. “The full truth of McCarrick’s dirty deeds, including those on Wisconsin soil, is essential. We need to record the path of these predators.”

Marchant says she was “immensely grateful” when Kaul (above) was reelected in November 2022 for four more years, because it meant the investigation of clergy and faith leader abuse could continue. “It takes time for victims to come forward,” she says. “It takes years for people to build up the courage to speak or write about it.” 

Because McCarrick did not live in Wisconsin, the clock on the statute of limitations stopped when he left the state, allowing prosecutors to charge the laicized former cardinal decades after the assault.

In April 2021, Kaul established an online reporting tool and telephone hotline to collect information from abuse survivors and their families, or anyone with information about churches’ response to abuse. According to a DOJ statement, the website and telephone hotline have led to 248 completed reports so far, and “a significant number” of these stories had not been previously shared with anyone.

Kaul has invited reports about abuse by leaders from any faith community. In addition to the recent charge against McCarrick, Wisconsin’s clergy and faith leader initiative has led to charges against Remington Nystrom who worked at a church camp established by the Moravian Church of America, and Jeffrey Anthony Charles, who served as the pastor for the nondenominational church Neighbors to Nations.

When Kaul launched the clergy and faith leader initiative, Awake Executive Director Sara Larson spoke in support of abuse survivors and their families, and addressed Catholics “who are heartbroken and outraged about the crimes that have been committed in our Church.”

“Our Catholic faith calls us to stand up in the face of injustice and act in solidarity with those who are suffering,” she said, “so I ask my fellow Catholics to join me in welcoming this investigation and in facing whatever might be revealed with both courage and compassion.”

How Does Wisconsin’s Investigation Compare with Maryland’s?

Wisconsin’s investigation is ongoing and no end date has been announced. But when it began, Kaul said he would ultimately issue a report about its findings. A similar final report was released earlier this month in Maryland.

To compare the Wisconsin and Maryland investigations, we spoke with retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, a distinguished professor of law at Marquette University in Milwaukee and leading advocate for restorative justice practices in the Catholic Church.

One basic difference between the two investigations is that Wisconsin’s is larger in scope, she says. “The attorney general in Maryland decided to specifically look at the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and they were really concentrating on Catholic priests, deacons, and employees, which is different than what I understand Attorney General Kaul is doing in Wisconsin, which is statewide and not exclusively the Catholic Church,” she explains.

In Maryland a grand jury issued subpoenas to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, individual parishes, religious orders, and a seminary to obtain documents “including treatment reports, personnel records, transfer reports, and policies and procedures,” the report said. No subpoenas have been issued so far in the Wisconsin investigation. But if the process uncovers previously unknown abuse cases that are credible, Kaul “may ultimately start a grand jury with subpoenas,” Geske says.

The Maryland report identified 33 abusers who were not previously known. Geske calls the report “incredibly comprehensive” and says it does a good job analyzing how the institutional Church responded to allegations. She hopes that the Wisconsin report will offer similar analysis, which can then be used to make changes. “You can do all sorts of things when you get a big picture,” Geske says.

A “Survivor-Led” Process in Wisconsin

Before officials announced the investigation of sexual abuse by clergy and faith leaders in Wisconsin, they hired Patricia Marchant to train the state’s investigators, drawing on her expertise as a psychotherapist with trauma training and as a victim-survivor of abuse. “They knew a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault issues, but they were not as informed on the clergy abuse piece,” she explains.

After working closely with the state team, including victim advocate Lynda Jackson, Marchant is confident that the reporting process is trauma sensitive and victim-centered. “As a victim-survivor, you’re in charge of what you want to disclose,” Marchant explains. “They work with you through the process of disclosure and will tell you straight up what can and cannot be done.”

Once a person files a report through the online tool or telephone hotline, Jackson reaches out to the person who filed it. “She will talk with you about next steps and what you’re looking for in terms of healing and recovery,” Marchant says. “She will help link you to resources and validate the harm.” A multidisciplinary team then decides if the claim can be forwarded to local authorities. Marchant appreciates that DOJ staff follow up on each report. “They’re taking this extremely seriously and not dismissing anything,” she says.

Marchant understands deeply that some victim-survivors feel overwhelmed by the thought of coming forward. She acknowledges that the reporting process can bring up tough feelings, including grief. But she says years of experience have shown her that it can also be emotionally freeing. “From my point of view as a therapist and a survivor, it’s incredibly therapeutic to speak and write about what happened to you and have it documented in history,” she says. “We need to speak about what’s unspeakable in order for healing to happen.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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