Milwaukee Archbishop: ‘It’s the Church That Is Continually Targeted’
Archbishop Jerome Listecki discusses his challenge to the Wisconsin attorney general’s request to reopen old sexual abuse cases.
Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee is one of only a relative handful of clergy in the Catholic Church to hold canon law and civil law degrees. Putting his knowledge of the law to work, the archbishop of Milwaukee has challenged the Wisconsin attorney general’s request to review reports of clergy abuse in the state, seeing it as an infringement on the Church’s rights and a constitutional violation of religious freedom.
Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul announced this past April that it was heading up an investigation into alleged sexual abuse in “the state’s Catholic dioceses and at least three religious orders.”. The review would begin with Wisconsin Department of Justice (WDOJ) requests for files and documents from Catholic dioceses and religious orders.
Kaul’s review follows on similar reviews by his counterparts in other states, beginning with the much-heralded Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report and including those in Illinois, Missouri and Michigan.
But in early June the Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced it was pushing back against the WDOJ’s request for archdiocesan files. According to Archbishop Listecki, the attorney general’s plan to review abuse cases in the state indicates an unfair targeting of the Catholic Church in Wisconsin.
But this isn’t the first time that the archbishop has challenged Wisconsin state officials for singling out the Catholic Church.
At the beginning of his tenure in Milwaukee, he took issue with the way that Wisconsin’s lawmakers were seeking to make an example of the Catholic Church regarding sexual abuse of minors. On Jan. 12, 2010, only eight days after taking the helm, Archbishop Listecki testified against a Wisconsin Senate bill that proposed to indefinitely extend the statute of limitations for sexual contact with a child. Currently, under Wisconsin law, those claiming to have been the subject of sexual contact by a member of the clergy have until they reach the age of 35 to bring suits against alleged assailants.
In his testimony, Archbishop Listecki argued that as written the bill unfairly singled out the Catholic Church and, should it pass, would put the Catholic Church in an unfair position by allowing for a flood of lawsuits that would likely bankrupt the Church in the state. (According to a 2019 report by WisPolitics.com, the measure has been introduced — and defeated — in every Wisconsin state legislative session since 2007.)
“We can’t ignore the injustice of targeting the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Listecki said, as reported by a Wisconsin newspaper at the time, during the hearing held by the 2010 Wisconsin Senate judiciary committee. The bill was defeated in the Senate on April 28, 2010; however, because of the financial drain on the archdiocese from settling previous sexual abuse claims, in 2011 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy, eventually paying out in 2015 a $21-million settlement to 330 abuse victims and setting aside $500,000 to underwrite therapy for abuse victims and their families.
The Register spoke with Archbishop Listecki by email about the Wisconsin attorney general’s review of cases, why he decided to challenge the attorney general and what the Catholic Church in the Dairy State has accomplished in protecting the health and safety of the most vulnerable in its care.
Archbishop, what is your primary reason for declining to produce documents for the Wisconsin attorney general?
This is an historical issue. There is no evidence or incident alleging abuse is happening today. There is no evidence that the Church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hasn’t already taken all steps possible to address and resolve these issues.
Over the past 20 years, no institution in the United States has done more to combat the evil of this societal issue. We know there have been mistakes made in how some cases were handled in the past, but today the Church has become a model of how this issue is addressed, including oversight, safe environment and prevention.
Archdiocesan files have been reviewed multiple times over the past 30 years. First by a retired Milwaukee County circuit court judge; then by civil authorities, including the Milwaukee County district attorney; and also by an outside firm of former FBI agents; to make sure no allegations had gone uncovered. Federal Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley stated after reviewing all the claims filed that “no public safety concern is present.”
How does the investigation display anti-Catholic bigotry and how does it violate the First Amendment?
The investigation has been represented widely in the media as “an investigation into the Catholic Church,” including during a Wisconsin Public Radio interview on May 10 featuring the attorney general, who stated that his initial request for documents was only to Catholic dioceses and religious orders.
It is also a violation of the establishment clause [in the First Amendment] which precludes the disfavoring of a particular religion. Our assertion is the Church is being unfairly singled out by this investigation. We have accepted our past history and worked so vigilantly to correct how things are handled, but it’s the Church that is continually targeted.
In what ways will you cooperate with the attorney general’s office?
The archdiocese will voluntarily provide access to documents and information on any living individual against whom a new allegation is made. This is already our practice and, if there are any new prosecutable crimes, the Church will offer its assistance in seeking justice.
Are you concerned that abuse victims and their families may view your position as evidence of a cover-up or a lack of pastoral concern? Do you have plans to address this?
The Church continues to pray for abuse survivors and keep their needs a priority. Since 1989, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has continuously provided outreach to abuse survivors, arranged for therapy and made available counseling to survivors and their families.
We can never apologize enough, and I am so sincerely sorry for what happened to these individuals. The abuse they suffered was not their fault. It was the fault of criminals who used the sanctity of the priesthood to commit crimes, and I am sick to my stomach when I think about it. Never could I have imagined when I became a priest that such behavior could have occurred.
We have continued to work with abuse survivors to improve the Church’s response to those who have been harmed, and we have also put stringent preventive measures in place.
What recent measures has the archdiocese undertaken on its own, as components of its continuing efforts to address clergy sexual abuse?
All the names of diocesan priests with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor were posted on our website in 2004. The list has been updated, and more documents added for full transparency.
The Catholic Church is the largest provider of safe environment programs in Wisconsin and this mandatory education means nearly 100,000 individuals have been trained to recognize potential abuse/abusers and have heightened awareness of this societal scourge.
Furthermore, criminal background checks are required for all bishops, priests, deacons, staff and volunteers working with children. Independent reporting mechanisms are in place so people can report suspected behavior.
On a personal level, I have continued the practice started by my predecessor of meeting with abuse survivors and their families. I have heard their stories and understand why the vast majority of abuse survivors do not want public attention. I am always moved at our annual Mass of Atonement, a beautiful and spiritual expression of the Church's deep sorrow and true remorse for what occurred.
I continue to ask for forgiveness before God on behalf of the Church. To do more, the archdiocese has established a community advisory board with advocates, outside experts and abuse survivors to gain their wisdom and counsel as we provide ongoing support.