Kaul announces statewide investigation into clergy abuse

Kaul - Clergy Abuse
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announces a statewide investigation into clergy abuse. (Screenshot | WisEye)

Wisconsin is opening a statewide review of historical and recent sexual abuse by members of the clergy and other faith leaders, Attorney General Josh Kaul announced at a news conference Tuesday. 

The independent review — focused on the Catholic Church but looking for instances of abuse in other faiths and institutions — will collect reports of sexual abuse from survivors, connect them with resources and, in cases in which the statute of limitations has not yet expired, prosecute the perpetrators, Kaul said. The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) is working with the district attorneys of the five Wisconsin counties in which Catholic dioceses are located — Brown, Dane, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Douglas. 

“I would like to say to survivors of clergy and faith leader abuse, we hear you,” Kaul said. “We know how important this is and the Wisconsin Department of Justice is committed to pursuing accountability and working to prevent future cases from happening.” 

Dozens of other state attorneys general, including those in neighboring Illinois and Michigan, have investigated clergy abuse. The investigations have been opened across the country after Pennsylvania completed a grand jury investigation in 2018 that found more than 300 “predator priests” and more than 1,000 victims. 

Kaul said churches and religious orders in Wisconsin have already identified 160 credible accusations of clergy abuse in the state. Other accusations of clergy abuse have created media attention and outrage. 

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Nate Lindstrom was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Norbertine priests of St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere after he was abused by three priests as a teenager, according to an investigation by the Green Bay Press-Gazette

Last year, Lindstrom killed himself at age 45. His case has resulted in the creation of Nate’s Mission, an organization working to end clergy abuse. 

Other Catholic orders in Wisconsin have also released lists of its members who had been accused of abuse. in 2018, the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church created a list — broken down by region — of its priests that had been credibly accused of abuse. 

The Jesuit Midwest Province, which includes Wisconsin, found that more than a dozen abusive Jesuit priests worked in Wisconsin. Those priests worked at schools including the now-closed Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Marquette University High School in Milwaukee and Marquette University. 

The Nate’s Mission program director, Peter Isely and Lindstrom’s wife, Karen, spoke at the news conference and encouraged survivors to participate in the investigation. 

“We stand here today, not only on Nate’s behalf, but for all victims and survivors of clergy abuse,” Karen said. “We are here because victims like Nate need an avenue to justice, driven by the state, and not from the inside of the very organization that abused them. We are here because this issue is not about individual crimes. This requires the examination of the entire organization that has enabled the abuse of countless children. We are here because Nate said over and over again that he never wanted this to happen to another child. We find ourselves here today standing on the shoulders of victims and survivors whose relentless work made this happen. We’re grateful for their courage and fortitude.”

At the news conference, Kaul said he had spoken with leaders in all five dioceses prior to the announcement and that he hopes they participate in the investigation by providing documents and witnesses. 

“I’m not going to go into detail on our strategy for how we approach this but what I will say for right now is that it’s my hope that the diocese and religious orders cooperate with this investigation and that they do produce documents,” Kaul said. “There’s obviously some information that has already been made publicly available, including a list of over 160 credibly accused priests, but a critical component of this is survivors reaching out. We are going to review the facts fairly, we approach this in good faith and we’re going to proceed based on what information we receive and what evidence we gather.” 

In statements, the leadership of each diocese said it would review any requests from DOJ when they’re received but that they and the Catholic Church have worked to combat sexual abuse in recent decades — including through independent reviews and the release of lists of accused priests. 

The statements from the dioceses of Madison, Green Bay and La Crosse listed the variety of initiatives and reviews undertaken to aid survivors and stop clergy abuse. The Diocese of Superior did not respond to a request for comment.

The statement from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, included its anti-abuse efforts, but was also the most critical of Kaul’s investigation. 

“Over the past 20 years, no institution in the United States has done more to combat the evil of sexual abuse of a minor than the Catholic Church,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to the Archbishop of Milwaukee, said. “We know there have been mistakes made in how some cases were handled in the past, but today the Church has become a model of how this issue is addressed, including oversight, background checks, training, safe environment education and prevention, and outreach to abuse survivors.”

Topczewski also questioned Kaul’s authority in launching the investigation and complained that it was targeting the Catholic Church — even though Kaul said the review would be accepting reports of abuse from leaders of all faiths. 

“There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hasn’t already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse,” he said. “We also do not understand the legal basis for the inquiry. We also question why only the Catholic Church is being singled out for this type of review when sexual abuse is a societal issue.” 

To report clergy abuse, survivors can call 877-222-2620 or go online to https://supportsurvivors.widoj.gov.