What Is Archdiocese Afraid Of?
Archbishop Listecki strongly opposes state investigation of clergy sex abuse. Why?
Has any archdiocese in America been as hostile as Milwaukee to a statewide investigation of clergy sex abuse?
The recent announcement by Attorney General Josh Kaul makes Wisconsin the latest of more than 20 states that have launched such investigations. In Georgia, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory encouraged the attorney general to do the investigation. In Missouri, the St. Louis Archdiocese cooperated, handing over its records to the Attorney General. In Virginia the two Catholic dioceses — in Richmond and Arlington — released a joint statement, saying they are cooperating and hope the process “will bring healing for all victims and confirm our commitment to accountability and justice.” In New Mexico the “Dioceses of Las Cruces and Gallup as well as the Archdiocese of Santa Fe said they plan to cooperate with the attorney general,” which was the same message from the Detroit archdiocese in response to the Michigan investigation.
Attorneys for the archdiocese sent a letter to Kaul dripping with scorn, charging that “The Attorney General has no legal authority to engage in this ‘investigation’” and that it “violates the First Amendment, the Wisconsin Constitution and Related Law.”
The letter strongly suggests there are no more victims of clergy sex abuse to be found, as “99% of the filed claims involved allegations that pre-date 1990,” and “compliance with your request here would involve another six-figure expenditure of lawyers’ fees and untold staff hours.”
‘There is simply no benefit to your office attempting to conduct this type of unwarranted investigation in the absence of any legal authority and in the absence of any defined and reachable goals,” the attorneys charge.
Listecki, meanwhile, wrote a letter to all members of the 10-county archdiocesan congregation with an entirely different tone, noting that “While the archdiocese has done a lot, we can and should do more, and that includes cooperating with the Attorney General in any proper inquiry he might undertake.” He goes on, however, to explain why the inquiry isn’t a proper one.
These are extraordinary claims for an archdiocese that a Frontline story singled out 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.
As Urban Milwaukee has reported, “thousands of documents released in a bankruptcy court case showed that 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, often waiting years to remove a priest from ministry who had credible allegations of child sexual abuse.”
The archdiocese is also notable for the tenacity with which it 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.”
This was part of an aggressive legal defense by the archdiocese, a policy continued by Listecki, that led to “the longest-running church bankruptcy in U.S. history” as Frontline noted. Though Listecki declared that the church wanted to support the victims through “therapy and healing,” 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 a result, the victims were “forced to make a decision that would prevent the case from being drawn out longer and incurring additional bankruptcy attorneys’ fees.”
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.
Peter Isely, program director of Nate’s Mission, a Wisconsin-based project of the national group Ending Clergy Abuse, suggests several reasons. One key issue is that more than half of all clerics in the Milwaukee archdiocese are members of religious orders, and if any were accused of sexual abuse, they may have been moved out of state to a different province of that religious order. And under the law the clock for the statute of limitations stops running — or “tolling” — as soon as that person leaves the state.
“Over the last 12 years there have been three dozen clerics prosecuted and convicted under the ‘tolling’ statute,” Isely notes, and there are likely many more yet to be discovered. “There are going to be prosecutable, investigable cases.”
The transferring of priests in religious orders went both ways, with some accused of sexual abuse in other states being moved to Wisconsin. One such cleric, Franciscan Brother Paul West, was accused of sexual abuse in Jackson, Mississippi and later transferred to a grade school in Green Bay, WI. West was arrested in August, 2020 in Outagamie County and extradited to Mississippi, where he currently faces trial.
Isely also notes that the bankruptcy trial required all 575 victims to write a detailed report of what they suffered in order to claim compensation “and no law enforcement official has seen many of these reports.”
Isely believes Listecki’s letter to the archdiocese is meant to “scare away potential whistle blowers” — people who may have information about how these cases were handled — from giving testimony. “Some of these people are very nervous and even terrified” about cooperating with the investigation, he says.
Listecki’s letter condemns “criminals who used the sanctity of the priesthood to commit crimes, and I am sick to my stomach when I think about it.” But it also makes clear that he thinks this investigation is an unfair attack on the church. And for potential whistle blowers who are devout Catholics and “take the church dictates seriously,” Isley says, this can leave them divided about what to do. “It’s a real struggle of conscience.”