The state Department of Justice will launch an investigation into abuse by clergy members and other faith community leaders in Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul announced on Tuesday.
Speaking at a press conference on the steps of the state Capitol building, Kaul said the statewide investigation is long overdue.
“I know there are survivors, friends and family members of survivors and supporters of survivors who waited for years for a fair and independent review of clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin,” he said.
Kaul sent a letter last week to the state’s five Roman Catholic dioceses and several religious orders to inform them of the investigation. At the time, advocates lauded the planned investigation, saying it would help create a more complete statewide list of abusers.
“It’s our hope that the diocese and religious orders will work with us cooperatively,” Kaul said.
In a prepared statement, Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to the archbishop of Milwaukee, said the church has concerns about “the negative impact this could have on abuse survivors, because the publicity has the potential to re-victimize individuals.”
“There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hasn’t already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse,” Topczewski said in the statement. “We also do not understand the legal basis for the inquiry.”
The attorney general said some information has already been made public, including a list of roughly 160 cases of abuse by priests in Wisconsin.
DOJ officials will conduct the investigation by reviewing documents from dioceses and religious orders and taking direct reports from survivors and their families, friends and victim advocates. Victims who contact the state will also be referred to the DOJ’s Office of Crime Victim Services, which can provide confidential support services and referrals for additional support, like counseling.
The state will work with several district attorneys during the investigation. When necessary, district attorneys will work with local law enforcement to conduct investigations into individual reports. Criminal prosecutions will be pursued when possible, though it’s expected many reported cases will have happened too long ago to pursue legal action.
Peter Isley, an abuse survivor and leader of Nate’s Mission, a state group dedicated to combating clergy abuse, urged survivors to contact the state with information.
“I know how difficult it’s going to be for you to come forward again. I want you to know this time is different,” Isley said. “Right now, what these prosecutors need is evidence.”
Isley argued survivors have a “public duty and responsibility” to report the crimes against them.
Patricia Gallagher Marchant, who also suffered childhood abuse at the hands of a religious leader, urged leaders in faith communities to also report incidents.
“Please make amends,” she said. “Come clean, tell the truth, disclose all so all of us can heal.”
Anyone who has information about abuse, regardless of whether they have already reported the incident previously, are encouraged to contact the DOJ at SupportSurvivors.widoj.gov or by calling 1-877-222-2620.