MADISON - Two years after opening an investigation into sexual abuse committed by faith leaders in Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul is seeking access to court documents sealed nearly a decade ago in a bankruptcy filing by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Kaul says the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has not voluntarily provided records sought as part of an ongoing investigation into abuse committed by faith leaders, including Catholic clergy.
In a motion filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Kaul requested a confidential review of "sealed claims by survivors, objections to those claims, briefing on such objections, and rulings on the objections."
Under the request, information from the documents would be used to further an investigation into the scope of faith leader abuse in Wisconsin by the Department of Justice, but no documents would be released publicly.
"Given the decades of secrecy and subversion surrounding abuse reports and the findings in other states in which inquiries into faith leader abuse were conducted, DOJ’s independent review of the lists of credibly accused priests published by dioceses in Wisconsin is amply justified," Kaul argued in the motion.
Kaul's faith leader initiative launched in 2021, seeking more information about incidents of abuse among religious leaders in Wisconsin. Since its launch, the DOJ has received about 250 reports of abuse within several different religious groups, including the Catholic church.
Charges have been filed against two men as a part of the inquiry, neither of whom were directly affiliated with the Catholic church.
This is the first action to directly target information from a diocese, though critics of Kaul's investigation have been calling for more action since the early stages of the investigation.
Previously, Kaul was hesitant to discuss how he planned to obtain access to diocesan documents. He said he didn't know if he would use subpoenas to get access, noting that he would need probable cause that the documents contained evidence of chargeable criminal offenses.
“Through our ongoing Clergy and Faith Leader Abuse Initiative, we remain committed to supporting survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and faith leaders," Kaul said in a statement Thursday. "As part of that initiative, we continue to seek to obtain as much information as we can regarding clergy and faith leader abuse in Wisconsin."
The Archdiocese argues the DOJ's request is a violation of survivors and the others involved in the case.
"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," said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, in an emailed statement.
DOJ seeks to revisit 2015 settlement
The DOJ motion seeks to reopen the 2015 case that resulted in a settlement between the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and hundreds of survivors, in which the organization agreed to pay $21 million to compensate victims of sexual abuse. The settlement brought an end to a long-running case in bankruptcy court.
Kaul's request to reopen the case is limited to the DOJ's request to access sealed documents.
"DOJ does not ask for anything to be unsealed; it only asks that the DOJ be included among those that are permitted to confidentially review claims and related documents," the motion reads.
The Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011 as it faced more than a dozen civil lawsuits over its handling of abuse claims. The Archdiocese moved to reorganize, as the claims for financial compensation exceeded its means.
Under the eventual settlement agreement, 330 of about 570 people who filed sexual abuse claims in the case received financial settlements. At the time, the settlement payout paled in comparison to those in similar Catholic Church bankruptcy cases, such as Boston's $85 million settlement in 2003.
Kaul alleges that the claims that weren't part of the settlement mean that abusers could have gotten away with their crimes, and that survivors never got the justice they deserved.
"To the extent that names of abusers who should be on these lists are not — even if those abusers are deceased — their survivors may have lived not only with the trauma from abuse but also with the compounding harm of not having their abuse acknowledged," he wrote. "Having their abuser named, and their abuse recognized, can provide a sense of healing for survivors of abuse."
The motion outlines how obtaining information included in the settlement might help complete reports made during the DOJ's faith leader inquiry. Some reports made to the agency lack the details needed for the agency to pursue them.
"This is not a surprise," the filing reads. "The events underlying reports often happened when the reporting person was a child and did not have a full understanding of what occurred; the events are often highly traumatic, which affects memory; and some occurred long ago."
The bankruptcy filings would provide a "unique opportunity to corroborate," Kaul argued.
The motion could also grant the DOJ access to claims made against individuals within the Archdiocese that weren't clergy members, such as visiting priests, religious brothers and lay staff, such as teachers and volunteers.
"That information was not central to the Archdiocese bankruptcy but is plainly relevant to a comprehensive understanding of clergy and faith leader abuse," Kaul wrote.
Advocates applauded Kaul's action Thursday afternoon, calling it a "complete game-changing legal intiative."
Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Nate's Mission, said survivors are thrilled and hopeful.
"They're going to bring out their legal microscopes and go through this bankruptcy line by line," he said.
Sarah Pearson, also of Nate's Mission, said Kaul's motion could be the first step into really digging into how clergy abuse took place in Wisconsin.
"It’s the first step on the way to really investigating fraud, and the officials, leaders and community members that participated," she said.
And in response to the claims that reopening the bankruptcy would hurt survivors, Isely and Pearson strongly disagreed, arguing that Kaul's investigation has never aimed to harm survivors and only seeks justice for them.
Archdiocese previously called investigation 'anti-Catholic bigotry'
The Archdiocese over the course of Kaul's investigation has pledged to share information with Kaul only if it is related to a currently serving, living clergy member, but has refused to acquiesce to any other of Kaul's asks for further information.
At one point, the Archdiocese called Kaul's investigation a display of "anti-Catholic bigotry" and a violation of the First Amendment.
In the motion, Kaul outlined how dioceses in other states have aided in faith leader investigations, showing transparency and accountability.
He pointed to Illinois, Iowa and Colorado, all of which had dioceses that willingly provided information to the Attorneys General.
"The Archdiocese has taken a markedly different approach, even accusing the DOJ of bigotry in connection with its work on the Initiative," the motion said. "DOJ remains undeterred."
Frank LoCoco, the Archdiocese's lawyer, argued that the DOJ missed its opportunity to get see the documents, and could have requested them when the bankruptcy was pending.
"We see no basis for providing access to these Proofs of Claim at this late date," LoCoco said in the Aug. 9 letter to the agency.
How do I report abuse?
To file a report, call 877-222-2620 or use the online reporting tool at supportsurvivors.widoj.gov. Both options provide the ability to file an anonymous tip.
The department is still accepting reports and said survivors have control of what happens after their report is received.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura. Jessie Opoien can be reached at email@example.com. Hope Karnopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boy, we'll hear some squealing from the Catholic predators. A priest tried to diddle me in high school. I shut him down. He just molested others. The Catholic Church has a 2,000 year history of molestation of minors and other sexual perversions. They brainwash their "faithful" and then prey upon their offspring. This has happened thousands upon thousands of times. It continues to this day. It's what the Catholic Church does best.