Former Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn became the first candidate for governor to file his nominating papers Wednesday while fending off calls that he drop out because of his previous role representing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee against priest sex abuse lawsuits.
“My response to anybody who thinks I should get out of the race is ‘jump in the lake,’” Flynn told reporters after submitting 4,000 signatures to the Wisconsin Elections Commission to get on the Aug. 14 primary ballot.
Earlier this week, Women’s March Wisconsin called on Flynn to drop out of the race in response to a Wisconsin Gazette article about Flynn’s role representing the archdiocese against lawsuits from victims of priest sex abuse. The archdiocese agreed to pay victims and their lawyers $21 million in 2015.
The Milwaukee-based alternative newspaper, which is run by one of the compensated abuse victims, quoted Peter Isely, an abuse victim and former Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, saying Flynn “had a scorched-earth policy: Go after the victim any way you can.”
Flynn disputed allegations that he bullied anyone, saying “witnesses and victims were treated with the utmost respect.” He said any victim facing a deposition would find the experience “intrusive.”
Isely, in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, said the thousands of documents and depositions from the lawsuits show Flynn, who represented the archdiocese from 1989 to 2004, had a full list of priests accused of abuse and knew they were being moved between parishes and not being reported to police.
Isely highlighted the case of the Rev. James Arimond, who pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor fourth-degree charge of sexual assault in 1990 and was sentenced to 45 days in jail and 18 months of probation; he was subsequently assigned to clerical tasks in the archdiocese central office.
In October 1994, Flynn proposed a $25,000 settlement for Arimond to leave the priesthood, though it barred the agreement from being publicly disclosed. Years later, Arimond was working as a licensed professional counselor with adult clients in Racine, though his conviction would have been grounds to prevent him from being licensed.
Isely said Flynn must have known about Arimond’s plan and faulted him for not providing information to police or the state. He pointed to a 2002 email in which a Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee who supervised Arimond’s probation said Arimond had told her he planned to do family counseling after his probation supervision ended, which she advised against, and that she shared the information with an archdiocesan priest. Arimond received his counseling license in 1995, but the $25,000 check from Flynn’s law firm Quarles & Brady wasn’t written until March 1996.
Flynn said he didn’t know that Arimond had obtained a counseling license and if he had known he would have advised Arimond’s employer to do a background check.
‘Centerpiece of Western civilization’
Flynn said when he represented the archdiocese his goal was to settle with victims as fairly as possible and to make sure the abuse did not happen again. He said the church now immediately reports complaints against priests to police, removes them from ministry and, once allegations are substantiated, removes them from the priesthood.
“The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is a fine organization. The (Catholic) Church is a fine organization — it’s the centerpiece of Western civilization,” Flynn said. “It’s the centerpiece frankly of our Constitution, the Enlightenment, our whole Judeo-Christian tradition. I will always represent the Judeo-Christian tradition … and I’m not apologizing for that. It’s something that I’m very proud of.”
Flynn, 71, served as Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman from 1981 to 1985. He ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1978, 1986, 1988 and 2004.
“This campaign is about issues,” Flynn said. “It’s frankly about wages. It’s about getting rid of right to work and Act 10. It’s about cleaning up our water. This state used to be known for honest government, clean water and high wages and under the Republicans it’s known for corrupt government, dirty water and low wages and letting Vladimir Putin into our government. I’m going to clean all this up.”
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman called Flynn “a dirty defense attorney who shamefully said he was ‘proud’ of his work that bullied victims of sexual abuse.”
Isely, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate for governor, said he will continue to press Flynn about his role because it encourages all candidates to embrace legislation that would eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child victims of sexual abuse.
Flynn said he is confident he will win the nomination, though he faces a crowded field that could grow to nine or more candidates by the June 1 deadline for filing at least 2,000 signatures.
A Marquette Law School Poll released in early March found 7 percent of registered Democratic voters supported Flynn, placing him third behind state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers (18 percent) and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (9 percent).
Flynn also reported having the most cash on hand at the beginning of the year, but his $305,000 was a fraction of Gov. Scott Walker’s $4.2 million stash. Walker is seeking a third term.
Other Democrats running who were included in the poll include former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe; state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, of Alma; Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell; state Rep. Dana Wachs, of Eau Claire; Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik; and former state Rep. Kelda Roys, of Madison.