When it was reported by a local media outlet on April 22 that Attorney General Josh Kaul was opening an investigation into historical clergy abuse cases in the five dioceses in the state of Wisconsin, along with some religious orders, it sent shockwaves throughout the local Church: What is this all about?
“That’s a good question,” said Jerry Topczewski, Chief of Staff to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. “Why now when the Church has been making corrections for 20-plus years? But it is clearly a review of old cases the attorney general is asking for. He’s not suggesting there are cases ongoing. This is about historic cases dating back 40, 50, 60 years, and there is no indication there is any wave of new allegations.”
At this point, the archdiocese is waiting until Kaul sends his request outlining exactly what he’s looking for.
The announcement of the new reveal, confirmed during an April 27 news conference, also triggered a sense of dread over the rehashing of old cases that may again traumatize abuse survivors.
“You will always have people ask what else you can do and we want to listen and respond as best we can, but we also want to be prudent in our response to those requests and understand the impact it could have on other people,” Topczewski said. “There’s publicity around reporting abuse. For some people, that’s positive because some additional people might be empowered to come forward and tell their story. For others, there are many survivors who dealt with the trauma and now will experience that trauma again. You try to respond as best you can to individual needs.”
In the past 20-plus years, after the worldwide clergy abuse scandal came to light, Topczewski said the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has become a model in how to handle abuse cases and allegations, pointing to the many measures the archdiocese has taken and the resources it has set up for victims (see sidebar).
Among the measures set up are systems for criminal background checks, mandatory safe environment training for anyone working with children, educational programs to heighten awareness of potential abuse and reporting mechanisms so people can report suspected behavior. In addition, the archdiocese has published on its website the names and documents of credibly accused priests.
The procedures have been shown to work, even as recently as two years ago. A parish priest who was accused of abuse was removed from ministry for 18 months until those allegations turned out to be false. The mistakes of the past are not being repeated.
“No one will argue that there weren’t mistakes made in the way some cases were handled in the past,” Topczewski said. “We were a model of how not to do something, but today we’re a model of how to do something. I would say over the past 20-plus years, no institution in the state or across the nation has done more to address sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church. We’ve learned and implemented policies to successfully self-regulate ourselves, although there are critics who cannot accept that fact.”
There are concerns, Topczewski said, about why the Catholic Church has been singled out for this review when sexual abuse is a societal issue.
Representatives from the five dioceses in Wisconsin and religious orders met with Kaul via Zoom on April 26 to hear what he was planning.
“He laid out what he was proposing and we listened to him,” Topczewski said. “We asked a few questions through our attorney, Frank LoCoco of Husch-Blackwell, but it wasn’t a back-and-forth conversation at all.”
Kaul said in his media conference the investigation will consist of two parts: requesting and reviewing documents produced by dioceses and religious orders, and asking anybody with knowledge of clergy and faith leader abuse, including the institutional response to that abuse, to contact the state Department of Justice. The Department of Justice’s office of crime victim services has launched a toll-free line (877-222-2620) as well as an online reporting tool at supportsurvivors.widoj.gov.
Kaul was asked about criticism this probe unfairly targets the Catholic Church.
“This is a clergy and faith leader abuse initiative,” Kaul said, while never mentioning any other religion or institution by name.
“I think there will always be people who either don’t realize what has been done or for whom, whatever has been done, it will never be enough,” Topczewski said. “We can never apologize to abuse survivors enough for what happened to them. We always want to listen to survivors about what else we can do to assist them. Day by day, we try to do whatever we can to support abuse survivors. You quietly go about addressing what has happened in the past and do what you can to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”