Twenty-three lawyers are rising to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Flynn’s defense for his representation of the Milwaukee Archdiocese during the priest abuse scandal.
In a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal, the group noted that John Adams defended eight British soldiers who killed five protesting Americans, and Abraham Lincoln successfully defended an accused murderer by questioning the credibility of a witness who may have been telling the truth. Both of them went on to become presidents.
“To disagree with Matt Flynn, or any other candidate, is perfectly fair,” they wrote. “But to condemn him or any lawyer for serving well the American justice system, whether he represents the popular or the unpopular, the good or the bad, instead denies and threatens the essence of American justice and democracy.”
Last month two Madison Democratic legislators, Reps. Chris Taylor and Melissa Sargent, called on the former party chairman to drop out of the race saying he “participated in keeping parishes and the public in the dark about dozens of these pedophile priests, placing children at risk of being sexually abused.”
Flynn has denied that characterization, saying over time he helped usher abusive clergy out of the priesthood. He has emphasized that he did not represent any abusive priests, though he negotiated paid settlements.
But his suggestion that critics “go jump in the lake,” has angered some abuse victims, who continue to press the case against Flynn’s candidacy. The issue also came up at Thursday night’s candidate debate in Milwaukee.
The signatories of the letter to the State Journal include past presidents of the State Bar of Wisconsin and law school professors. According to the letter, some support Flynn, some support other Democrats and some don’t support any Democratic candidates.
They are Stephen E. Bablitch, Michelle A. Behnke, Mark J. Bradley, Jerome F. Buting, Brian E. Butler, Ralph Cagle, Patrick S. Coffey, Mark A. Frankel, Franklyn M. Gimbel, Stephen P. Hurley, Michele Lavigne, David W. Simon, John S. Skilton, Carrie Sperling, Adam Stevenson, Kathleen B. Stilling, Dean A. Strang, Paul G. Swanson, Michelle M. Umberger, David G. Walsh, John Walsh, John G. Walsh and Steven H. Wright.
Strang, who drafted the letter, referred questions to Skilton, who is a Flynn supporter.
In an interview Skilton questioned a key piece of evidence Flynn’s detractors point to — a 2011 deposition in which former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland said every time he met with Flynn “he would always have a list (of priests accused of abuse) for me” and he “accepted whatever the lawyer was telling me was going to happen.”
Skilton said lawyers are often placed in difficult situations with clients and can’t operate in “black-and-white. We practice in grays.” He said a lawyer’s job is to lay out the ethical and legal options, but the buck ultimately stops with the client.
“I am not suggesting perfection on Matt’s part,” Skilton said, acknowledging the letter writers had not done an exhaustive investigation into Flynn’s role with the archdiocese. “If a client exercises an option, as long as it’s ethical and not criminal, then that’s the client’s choice.”
Taylor said in response to the letter that the issue she was raising was about Flynn not reporting incidents of child abuse to the police.
“The issue isn’t that the archdiocese had legal representation,” Taylor said. “The ethical, moral and legal issue is that the archdiocese covered up the sexual abuse of children by their priests. Their own documents reveal Flynn was complicit in that cover up.”