The Catholic Diocese of Madison is considering an investigation to learn how many substantiated sexual abuse allegations there have been against priests and other clergy members after the Green Bay Diocese announced Thursday that more than 40 priests there had abused minors.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul may also be considering an investigation involving sexual abuse by clergy.
A group for victims of priest abuse asked Kaul to investigate all of the state’s dioceses for sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by diocese officials after the group was critical of the Green Bay Diocese’s decision to withhold the names of some priests who abused minors.
Kaul’s office told the Wisconsin State Journal late Saturday the Department of Justice would not comment on the request by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests “given this relates to a potential investigation.”
Madison Diocese staff members were taking steps toward launching an investigation and had begun interviewing consultants for a potential review of files but the unexpected death of Bishop Robert Morlino from a cardiac event in November put those plans on hold, spokesman Brent King said Friday.
“In recent months, and even in the days immediately preceding (Morlino’s) death, we have had numerous conversations weighing our options in this very regard,” diocese spokesman Brent King said. “The abuse scandal is something Bishop Morlino took very seriously.”
The Madison Diocese was notified by the Green Bay Diocese ahead of its public announcement Thursday that 46 of its priests had substantiated allegations they sexually abused a minor, according to King. The Green Bay Diocese posted the names of the priests on its website Thursday.
The Green Bay Diocese said it conducted an internal investigation starting in September and then hired investigators to inspect the files on priests and deacons in its 157 parishes.
At a press conference, Bishop David Ricken apologized to the 98 known victims who had been sexually abused by clergy in the diocese since 1906. The Green Bay Press Gazette reported that only 15 of the 46 clergy members are still alive. One name was withheld pending further review because the priest has contested his inclusion.
Morlino had conversations with lay people on his staff and the Madison Diocese’s Sexual Abuse Review Board about potential options the diocese could take with its investigation, according to King.
“This was a decision he was working through and requesting advice on,” he said. “His illness and death in November paused any decision on whether to bring an outside firm in to review the Diocese of Madison’s files. It is something that will have to be reconsidered now, with the advice of the same lay leaders, considering both Bishop Morlino’s wishes in this matter and discussing what the next bishop of Madison might want as well.”
The Madison Diocese has been watching closely the growing trend across the United States of conducting similar investigations by a number of dioceses and religious communities, King said.
The investigations have followed a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania that identified nearly 300 “predator priests” dating back seven decades. It also accused church leaders of covering up the abuses.
Since last August, about 50 dioceses and religious orders have publicly identified more than 1,000 priests and others accused of sexually assaulting children and nearly 55 more have announced plans to do the same, the Associated Press reported. That is more than half of the nation’s dioceses.
About 20 local, state or federal investigations have been launched since the release of the grand jury findings, according to the AP. That could lead to the identification of more clergy members with allegations of sexual abuse of minors, fines against dioceses and more court-ordered safety measures.
That’s the way Wisconsin should move, said Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
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“Other states have launched their own investigations and there’s more evidence of abuse and cover-ups among the dioceses in Wisconsin than in many of those states,” Isely said.
Isely took exception with the Green Bay Diocese’s decision not to release the names of 16 Norbertine priests who have substantiated sexual assault allegations. While the diocese said the Norbertine order in De Pere isn’t under the diocese’s jurisdiction, Isely said every diocese has an obligation to name every priest it knows has sexually assaulted children.
“They can’t be trusted to divulge all they know,” Isely said. “Their laws, rules and practices are not in line with civil society. They are not in line with criminal law, either, and that’s a problem. We have a 21st-century problem of sexual abuse and violence and we’re dealing with it with 15th-century laws and practices.”
Isely said the attorney general should look into then-Green Bay Bishop David Zubik’s order to diocese staff in 2007 to destroy personnel records of priests facing claims of sexual abuse and evidence that the Milwaukee Diocese paid off priests with similar sexual abuse claims against them.
“Let them explain to the attorney general what exactly they did and why they did it,” Isely said.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the sexual abuse and cover-ups that took place in Wisconsin, according to Isely.
“I’ve got to tell you, when I looked at the Pennsylvania report, I saw nothing in there that isn’t already documented in Wisconsin,” he said. “In some cases, it’s worse here.”
Isely is hopeful that Kaul will open an investigation.
“He showed deep feelings for victim’s rights of sexual assault, of dealing with sexual assault, of addressing sexual assault during the campaign,” he said. “I think it would make a lot of sense that he would do this. At this point, the only people we have any confidence or trust in when dealing with this subject is our elected justice officials. There’s accountability for those people.”
King said it has been diocesan policy since 2003 to make those clergy members with credible accusations against them public. In 2003, reports from five state dioceses — including Madison — listed 112 priests or clergy members with substantiated allegations of child abuse lodged against them and at least 323 claims of abuse, according to an Associated Press story in 2004.
The Madison Diocese reported that 19 victims of sexual abuse came from four of its priests between 1950 and 2002, according to the AP story.
Since that report was published and through Morlino’s 15 years as bishop, the Madison Diocese has put out public releases about any and all credible allegations, King said.
Last May, the diocese issued a statement after William Nolan, a retired Madison priest, was charged in Jefferson County with six counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child. The charges stemmed from when he was a priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Atkinson. According to a criminal complaint, a man told police he had a continuous sexual relationship with Nolan from 2006 to 2010 when he was between the ages of 13 and 16.
No trial date has been set for Nolan.
“Other states have launched their own investigations and there’s more evidence of abuse and cover-ups among the dioceses in Wisconsin than in many of those states.” Peter Isely, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests