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Wisconsin DOJ asks for sealed documents from Milwaukee archdiocese in sex abuse investigation

State attorney general wants to view records from bankruptcy case that resulted in a settlement with hundreds of sexual abuse survivors

The silhouette of a cross on a Catholic church
Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

Wisconsin’s Department of Justice is asking to see sealed records from the Milwaukee branch of the Catholic Church as part of the attorney general’s investigation into sexual abuse by faith leaders.

Those records were shielded from public view after the Milwaukee Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

In 2015, that bankruptcy case resulted in a $21 million settlement between the archdiocese and hundreds of sexual abuse survivors.

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In a motion field this week, DOJ attorneys asked to confidentially review sealed claims and documents related to those claims that were filed as part of the case in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Access to those documents could help the DOJ file charges against additional perpetrators, Attorney General Josh Kaul said.

In situations where criminal prosecution is no longer possible because the perpetrator is dead or Wisconsin’s statute of limitations has expired, Kaul says the information could help update a list of credibly accused priests.

“Because of issues like the statute of limitations, that in and of itself can bring a sense of healing to survivors,” Kaul said in an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio Friday afternoon.

Additionally, the sealed documents could help the DOJ assess whether the archdiocese is actually complying with the terms of its 2015 settlement, DOJ attorneys wrote. That includes the archdioceses’ promise to keep updating its public list of priests who are restricted from their duties after being accused of sexually abusing minors.

But Jerry Topczewski, the chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, blasted the motion in a statement Friday.

“Abuse survivors wanted their claims to be filed under the protective seal of the Bankruptcy Court to ensure their privacy, and all parties involved in the case agreed,” Topczewski said in a statement sent through the archdiocese’s attorneys. “For the Attorney General to attempt to violate that trust more than a decade later goes against the promises and assurances made to abuse survivors and would be traumatic to survivors who made a report expecting that it would remain private and now fear it could become public.”

Survivors’ group welcomes DOJ effort to access records, blasts archdiocese response

The DOJ’s motion is not asking for the records to be made available on a public court docket. Instead, the “limited” nature of that request is intended to preserve survivor confidentially, Kaul said.

“There are a number of parties to the bankruptcy that have access to those claims,” Kaul said. “So we’re just asking to be added as one of the parties that can review that information.”

Peter Isley, who advocates for survivors of clergy abuse as program director of Nate’s Mission, said it’s disingenuous and misleading for the Church to invoke concerns about victims’ privacy.

“What they want to do is send fear into the survivor community,” said Isley, who helped found the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also known as SNAP, after being abused by a priest as a child. “And, you know, it’s not going to work. So it’s false. It’s wrong.”

He added, “We’ve been waiting for the attorney general to do what was going to have to be inevitable, which was the force the church to hand over its thousands and thousands of pages of criminal evidence.”

In their motion, DOJ attorneys wrote that sealed documents would not be released by the agency in response to a public records request. The AG’s task force on clergy and faith leader abuse plans to publish a final report with its findings. But DOJ officials wrote that any identifying information about survivors from the sealed court documents will not be published in that report unless a survivor gives their consent.

Kaul launched the task force in 2021. This summer, the Walworth County District Attorney filed a sexual assault charge against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as a result of a tip made to the task force.

The charge is the result of McCarrick molesting an 18-year-old in 1977 while the two were visiting a vacation home in Lake Geveva, prosecutors say. Because McCarrick was never a Wisconsin resident, prosecutors argue the usual statute of imitations under Wisconsin law does not apply.

In 2021, McCarrick was charged with separate counts of sexual assault in Massachusetts. McCarrick’s attorneys says the 93-year-old suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and in June an expert for the state of Massachuetts concluded he was incompetent to stand trial.

The once high-ranking leader of the Catholic Church was defrocked in 2019 after the Vatican concluded he sexually abused children and adults.