ST. FRANCIS – In releasing between 6,000 and 7,000 pages of documentation related to clergy sexual abuse in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki hopes that a chapter in the church’s history can be closed and that healing for abuse survivors, their families and the church can continue.

He expressed that hope in “Love One Another,” his June 25 email communiqué to priests and others involved ministry in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, sent six days before the archdiocese planned to post the documents on its website:

“My hope in voluntarily making these documents public is that they will aid abuse survivors, families and others in understanding the past, reviewing the present and allowing the church in southeastern Wisconsin to continue moving forward,” he wrote.

In early April, the archbishop announced that approximately 3,000 documents from priest personnel files, files of the bishops and vicar for clergy and other sources in the archdiocese would be made public by July 1 and called this planned release an effort to build “upon our commitment to transparency.”

Read the documents here

The announcement came a day before a scheduled hearing before Judge Susan V. Kelley in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, the court overseeing the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection case. In January 2011, the Milwaukee Archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection due to the mounting financial toll of the sexual abuse crisis.

The number of pages of documents more than doubled at the request of claimants’ attorneys, explained Jerry Topczewski, the archbishop’s chief of staff, noting the attorneys for the abuse survivors selected the documents they believe best demonstrate how the archdiocese handled allegations of sexual abuse, responded to reports and dealt with offending priests.

Initially, 2,500 pages of documents were requested, and during the process of getting ready to post the documents, an additional 3,500 were selected by the claimants attorneys, said Topczewski, explaining that in the Chapter 11 proceeding, more than 60,000 pages of documents related to diocesan priests were produced by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee under a discovery order issued by the bankruptcy court.

Among the documents to be released are depositions of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, Bishop Richard J. Sklba and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, taken in Chapter 11 proceedings.

In his Love One Another email, the archbishop warned that “there are some terrible things described in many of the documents. Reading accounts of sexual abuse, whether by a priest, teacher, coach or family member, (is) ugly and unpleasant,” he wrote, adding he worries about the reactions of abuse survivors when confronted again with this material.

The archbishop noted he also worries about the effect the document release will have on Catholics and the general population.

“News about this topic can shake one’s faith. In fact, if you decide to go and review this material, prepare to be shocked,” he wrote.

As he’s done on several occasions, including Masses of Atonement held throughout the archdiocese, Archbishop Listecki apologized to those who have been harmed through the abuse scandal.

“We can never tell abuse survivors enough how sorry we are for what they endured,” he wrote. “My apology goes out to all who have been harmed and I continue to offer to meet with any individual abuse survivors who would find it helpful.”

Release of the documents, according to the archbishop, offers a look at history and might offer insight into the decision-making process of the time.

“The documents present one part of the history of what happened and demonstrate how people tried to do their best with what they knew at the time,” wrote Archbishop Listecki, cautioning, however, that the documents do not present a complete picture, as records were not always clear and memories have faded. Additionally, many of those involved are deceased.

“But we know that bad things happened to innocent children and youth,” he wrote, noting that the understanding of sexual abuse of minors progressed in years past from being seen as a moral failing that needed personal resolve and spiritual direction to a psychological deficiency that could be cured, to the belief that it’s an addiction that requires more extensive therapy, restrictions on ministry to the present understanding which sees it as a crime where the perpetrator needs to be held accountable.

While the reaction to abuse today might be, “A child was abused; the priest should be put in jail,” Archbishop Listecki wrote that that sentiment probably “best reflects the change in societal thinking over the decades and these documents show the progression and evolution of thinking on this topic.”

In dealing with the reports, Archbishop Listecki wrote that it became obvious to him that those who served in positions of authority may have been ill-equipped to deal with the topic and were ill-equipped to respond to the victims, their families and to the perpetrators.

Looking at the past, according to the archbishop, requires that the church face up to mistakes that have been made, “even if some of those mistakes become apparent only in hindsight. It means demonstrating our resolve to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again,” he wrote, adding he’s confident that “no organization in the world does more to combat sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church in the United States.

Other themes included in the documents are:

  • Reports of abuse were often not brought to the attention of the archdiocese or civil authorities until decades after the alleged incidents happened.
  • The incidents date back 25, 50, even 80 years.
  • Twenty-two priests were reassigned to parish work after concerns about their behavior were known to the diocese.
  • Eight of those reoffended after being reassigned.
  • The majority of perpetrators were not known to the archdiocese until years after they committed the abuse.
  • The archdiocese consistently showed care and concern for abuse survivors, and paid for therapy for individuals who were harmed.

Acknowledging this is not an easy time for the church, Archbishop Listecki concluded his letter with the hope that the documents’ release will lead to healing.

“Our hope is that the publication of these documents can help bring this chapter of our history to a close and allow us to continue to focus on our desire to work with abuse survivors and to focus on education and prevention.”