MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The state Department of Justice has launched a sweeping investigation of sexual assault in Catholic churches and orders across Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul announced Tuesday.
Kaul, a Democrat, said during a news conference that he wants to develop a full picture of clergy sexual abuse over the decades. He said the goal is transparency and a full accounting, and that his investigators will refer any new cases to prosecutors.
Officials in at least 22 other states have opened investigations into sexual misconduct within church hierarchies. Clergy sexual abuse survivors and their allies have long demanded that Kaul open a probe.
“I know there are survivors, friends and family members of survivors, supporters of survivors who have waited for years for a fair and independent review of clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin,” Kaul said. “And that’s what we are announcing today.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week that the review was coming. Kaul spoke with leaders of the state’s five Catholic dioceses on Monday to let them know he would be requesting information from them. They pushed back against the review Tuesday morning.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, issued a statement saying the review could re-victimize survivors and questioning why Kaul was targeting the Catholic Church.
“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,” 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.”
The Diocese of La Crosse issued a statement saying Bishop William Patrick Callahan last year publicly released the names and details of clergy with confirmed allegations of child sexual abuse. If Kaul seeks information from the diocese, officials will evaluate whether he has the authority to request it and the impact on survivors’ privacy, the statement said.
Officials at the Diocese of Madison said they would also review any Kaul requests for information, but that they take clergy sexual abuse “very seriously,” pointing to background checks, training on making environments safe and creating a review board. Officials with the Diocese of Green Bay issues a similar statement. A message left at the Diocese of Superior wasn’t immediately returned.
Kaul declined to elaborate on his tactics if the dioceses won’t turn over information. He repeatedly implored survivors to contact the DOJ and tell their stories to investigators, no matter how long ago the abuse took place. Those stories could provide the basis for search warrants.
Kaul said during his news conference that the review would extend to other faith leaders outside the Catholic Church if that’s where the facts lead. Still, he was flanked by Catholic clergy abuse survivors who praised him for undertaking the review.
“My family and I have been waiting years for this opportunity,” said Patricia Gallagher Marchant, who won a six-figure settlement from the Diocese of Madison in the early 1990s after she reported a priest at her parish in Monona abused her when she was seven or eight years old in the 1960s. “Today, we’re asking survivors to speak about what’s unspeakable to them. You get to tell your story. Please, all of you call. Your story matters.”
The DOJ has set up a hotline for survivors at 1-877-222-2620.
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