Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Flynn’s role in the Milwaukee Archdiocese priest abuse scandal received new attention Monday as a letter provided by the state GOP showed he met twice with a priest to discuss abuse allegations that weren’t referred to police until nine years later.
Flynn has maintained throughout the campaign that he didn’t represent abusive priests and was not part of what abuse victims say was a cover-up by the archdiocese.
On Monday in a 45-minute conference call with reporters Flynn confirmed the 1993 meeting with then-priest Marvin Knighton occurred. Flynn also said he had similar meetings with “a handful of other” accused priests. But he disputed Knighton’s characterization that Flynn advised to wait and see if the alleged victim filed a complaint.
“What he says there is false,” Flynn said. “I insisted (the archdiocese) go to the police on any allegation.”
The alleged victim didn’t file a complaint, but in 2002 after discussing his interactions with Knighton with a therapist, the matter was again brought to the archdiocese’s attention.
Then after a second alleged victim from the 1970s came forward, the matter was referred to the Milwaukee County District Attorney.
In June 2002 the district attorney’s office charged Knighton with one count of second-degree sexual assault of a child. The 1970s allegation fell outside the statute of limitations and no criminal charge was filed in that case.
A jury acquitted Knighton of the single charge, but the Catholic Church conducted a separate investigation and a canonical trial found Knighton guilty of both counts of abuse.
The church dismissed him from the priesthood after he lost his appeal in 2011.
Flynn held the press conference to discuss a recent email from former Archbishop Rembert Weakland in which Weakland described to Flynn the process the church used for dealing with priests accused of pedophilia. Weakland, who was Milwaukee archbishop from 1977 to 2002, said priests were sent to therapists and if determined not to be a threat, reassigned to parishes where they would have no role in youth ministry.
“The ultimate determination was made by the Archbishop. The lawyers were not involved,” Weakland, a friend of Flynn’s, wrote. “Looking back, I would frankly have to admit that we were all extremely naive. We did not understand the power of recidivism in such cases.”
But in another letter, highlighted Monday by the Republican Party of Wisconsin, Knighton described two meetings he had in 1993 with Flynn, who represented the archdiocese as a lawyer for Quarles & Brady at the time.
Knighton wrote in the 2003 letter to then-archbishop Timothy Dolan that he went to Flynn 10 years earlier and shared with him the allegations that had been made against him. Knighton stated in the letter “nothing inappropriate ever happened with this young man.”
He wrote that Flynn “suggested that we simply wait to see if he would file a report with Project Benjamin,” an archdiocesan program to help victims of abuse. The accuser never filed a report, so Knighton met with Flynn again “and he told me not to worry about it. He felt that the young man wasn’t going to do anything.”
“I did not feel comfortable with that decision and again requested that as ‘legal counsel’ for the Archdiocese, that we be proactive in such a delicate matter and meet with my accuser,” Knighton wrote. “Mr. Flynn told me that it would be too much of a hassle to do anything legally and most likely nothing would happen. How wrong was that?”
In addition to disputing that characterization, Flynn questioned Knighton’s credibility and said the fact that it was in a letter 10 years after the conversation meant it was not a contemporaneous account of what occurred.
“I did not tell them to sit idly by,” Flynn said. “The advice that I gave in general is follow up on this, investigate it and report it to the police.”
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said in a statement that “Flynn lied about his role protecting these dangerous predators.”
“This letter proves his dishonesty and now his only defense is hiding behind a disgraced bishop,” Zimmerman said, a reference to the 2002 revelation that Weakland had paid $450,000 in archdiocesan funds to a man with whom he had had a secret relationship.
Two Democratic lawmakers, women’s rights groups and several abuse victims have called on Flynn to drop out of the race, saying he was part of a cover-up. A group of Wisconsin lawyers have defended Flynn’s representation of the archdiocese, saying lawyers should not be held responsible for bad decisions made by their clients.
The Milwaukee chapter of a support group for priest abuse survivors responded to Flynn’s defenders in a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal, saying the thousands of pages of documents from a lawsuit against the archdiocese show Flynn played a key role in the archdiocese’s attempt to cover up child sex abuse.
“It is wrong, for whatever reason or legal pretext, to cover up the sexual assault of children. Period,” founding member Peter Isely wrote.
Flynn is one of eight Democrats running in the Aug. 14 primary to face Gov. Scott Walker in November.