Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Kaul Probe of Clergy Abuse Is Historic

Unprecedented state-wide investigation could uncover many crimes, lead to legal reforms.

By - May 10th, 2021 05:29 pm
Josh Kaul. File photo by Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Josh Kaul. File photo by Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Peter Isely has been an activist working on the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy since 1992, and has never seen anything like the statewide investigation that Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced in late April. 

“There’s never been anything remotely like an independent public investigation of all this,” says Isely, a founding member of the the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and now Program Director for Nate’s Mission, a new group involved with the issue. “Finally the victims of abuse feel the state justice department is on their side.”

“This is really significant,” says Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. “It puts into place a confidential process that is not run by the Catholic Church. It sets up a dedicated hotline with trained specialists to review complaints.” 

The investigation by the state Department of Justice (DOJ) will consider any incidents involving all five Catholic dioceses and nine religious orders in the state and will also work with five district attorneys in counties where the dioceses are located, which includes Chisholm’s office. 

The scale of the investigation is suggested by a special web page the DOJ created to explain it. There is “no time limitation to how far back” the probe will go, the DOJ explanation notes. Nor will it be limited by “a victim’s age at the time of abuse,” meaning abuse of both minors and adults will be considered. And not just abuse by clergy but “by other people in positions of trust within the church,” including nuns and teachers. And not just victims are urged to share what they know, but those who know about abuse by or involving others or “have knowledge about the church’s response to abuse.”

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee was quick to condemn the investigation, with a press release questioning “why only the Catholic Church is being singled out for this type of review?”

Actually, that’s not true. The DOJ noted that “victims are encouraged to report sexual abuse committed in any religious organization.”

However, there is little doubt the Catholic Church is the main focus of the probe and for good reason. By 2013, more than 6,900 priests had been accused of pedophilia in the United States and the number has continued to rise.

In 2019, the number of allegations of sex abuse of minors by Catholic clergy more than quadrupled compared to the average in the previous five years, according to data released the U.S. Conference of U.S. Catholic Bishops and reported by the Washington Post. The 2019 report by the bishops — which covered July 2018 through June 2019 — counted 4,434 allegations of clergy sex abuse against minors. That number was 1,451 in 2018, 693 in 2017, 1,318 in 2016 and 903 in 2015.

The total number of accused clergy to date hasn’t been tallied but a 2003 study released by the conference of bishops concluded that 4 percent of all priests who served from 1950-2002 had been accused of molesting minors. If the rate was that high for teachers in the U.S., that would equal 120,000 pedophiles. 

Isely, however, believes the percentage of pedophile priests is much higher. “If you look at federal reporting where there have been grand juries investigating this, the percentage gets near 10 percent,” he said in a past Urban Milwaukee story.

A PBS Frontline show singled out Milwaukee as one of the most dreadful examples of how victims of abusive priests were handled. Milwaukee, it concluded, had the fourth largest problem in the nation in terms of the number of victims.

The archdiocese statement responding to Kaul’s announcement, however, insists “there is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have not already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse.” Archdiocesan spokesperson Jerry Topczewski goes even further, telling Urban Milwaukee that ”no institution in the country has done more in the past 20 years to address the societal issue of sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church.”

And yet a 2019 investigation by the AP found that “nearly 1,700 priests and other clergy members that the Roman Catholic Church considers credibly accused of child sexual abuse are living under the radar with little to no oversight from religious authorities or law enforcement.”

As for Milwaukee, a court case settled in 2015 led to the release of thousands of documents showing former Archbishops Rembert Weakland and Timothy Dolan and the Vatican in Rome “repeatedly denied sexual abuse survivors justice by failing to act with urgency on reports of sexual abuse,” as Urban Milwaukee reported.

Milwaukee also tenaciously resisted giving any settlements to victims. Dolan transferred nearly $57 million in archdiocese funds into a cemetery trust, a move that shielded church dollars from the legal claims of abuse victims. Documents released in the court case showed Dolan asked for permission from the Vatican to transfer the funds to protect the archdiocese “from any legal claim or liability.”

The court case was part of a successful attempt by the archdiocese to declare bankruptcy in the face of financial claims by hundreds of sexual abuse claims. The effort was led by Dolan’s successor, current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, and resulted in “the longest-running church bankruptcy in U.S. history” as Frontline noted. The Archdiocese “objected to all 575 sexual abuse claims filed in bankruptcy court and attempted to have hundreds of the claims thrown out of court,” as Fox 6 reported. 

One of the archdiocese’s lawyers warned they would spend down all the money it had on court fees if that was necessary, while pressuring the plaintiffs to settle. The tactics worked. The settlement was “the fourth largest (in the nation) terms of the number of alleged victims, but 27th in terms of compensation,” Frontline noted.

Isely says the court documents showed there were another 100 clergy accused by victims who have never been identified by the archdiocese. Topczewski says this is “absolutely false” but Chisholm says there could be more perpetrators yet to be discovered. “There was always a concern there were other cases out there,” the DA says.

The DOJ is offering absolute confidentiality to anyone calling to offer information. whether responding online or through the toll-free abuse reporting line. “Victim names will not be released to the public without the victim’s consent” and victims will be referred to support services should they desire this.

At least 22 other states have announced investigations since 2018. The one in Michigan was launched in August 2018 and in less than a year resulted in officials seizing hundreds of thousands of documents from the state’s seven dioceses and filing criminal cases against five clergy members. But Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said there could be hundreds or even thousands of additional victims. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We anticipate many more charges and arrests.”

Chisholm, who helped set up a meeting between Isely and Kaul, which helped lead the way to this investigation, praises the team Kaul has put together for it. “I’m really impressed by the quality and experience of the people they have brought on.” 

“They’ve done a very good job, better than in most other states, to get the word out” to possible victims, Isely notes “and they hired a victim specialist to handle the calls.”

And yes, the calls are coming in. If you have any information to report, call the hotline at 1-877-222-2620

2 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Kaul Probe of Clergy Abuse Is Historic”

  1. kaygeeret says:

    It is more than past time that the ‘powers’ in the church start living up to the standards of the faith they preach to others.

    If it takes civil authorities to hold them to account so be it.

    They betray the values I was taught thru 12 yrs of Catholic education, and the cynicism that has resulted has left me and many like me “RCR” aka ‘retired roman catholic’.

  2. Edward Susterich says:

    Investigation of the corrupt Catholic Church is long overdue. District Attorney John Chisolm’s predecessor, E, Michael McCann, had to know of the Milwaukee Archdiocese coverup of Father Lawrence C. Murphy’s abuse of up to 200 deaf boys at St. John Scool for the Deaf. McCann did not prosecute. Chisolm did not investigate.

    Why is anyone still a Catholic?

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