Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop Of Milwaukee
Since my return from Rome last week, I have been catching up on all the things that happened while I was away for the ad limina trip and the consistory where my friend and predecessor Timothy M. Dolan was elevated to the office of Cardinal.
The first thing that confronted me was the media coverage of the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 proceeding and statements made about the number of abuse claims filed and the safety of children in the Church today.
Any instance of sexual abuse of a minor is a disgusting sin and a horrible crime. My heartfelt apology goes out to anyone who has been harmed. When Pope Benedict visited the United States in April 2008, he rightly referred to the sexual abuse of children by priests as “evil” and a “sin,” acknowledging that the crisis was “sometimes very badly handled by Church leaders.”
However, statements reported as facts in the media, go beyond the adversarial rhetoric we have come to expect in this proceeding. On top of that, several state legislators, without having access to factual information regarding any of the claims, compounded the issue by calling for the state attorney general to investigate, unaware that both old and new claims have been turned over to and been reviewed by district attorneys for more than a decade.
The combination of these two actions is, to me, the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater and it set off a number of anxious inquiries from our people to which I feel compelled to respond. Here are the facts about the archdiocese’s policies and protocols that have been rigorously followed since 2002.
First, of all the claims filed in the archdiocesan bankruptcy only one (1) claim alleges sexual abuse occurring since 2000. That means the vast majority of claims allege incidents of abuse that date back decades, in some cases more than 70 years. This means the Safe Environment education and protocols implemented by the archdiocese in the mid-1990s are working. As a point of comparison, there have been more than 40 cases of sexual abuse in our state involving public school personnel since 2000 -- and those are just the cases where a person was convicted in court.
Second, it is true that some new names of diocesan priests did surface in the claims process. In those instances, if the accused is still alive, the claim has been sent to the appropriate district attorney’s office for review. If the district attorney chooses not to pursue the case, the archdiocese follows its policies and conducts an independent investigation. During that time, the priest is restricted from public ministry. In addition, any claim against a religious order priest is sent to the religious order with a copy of the allegation sent to the district attorney. This has been diocesan policy for years and it was at my insistence that we worked with the claimants’ attorneys to ensure we could continue this investigative process in Chapter 11. We encourage anyone making a claim involving a lay person to also follow our lead and report the claim to the district attorney.
Third, and just as important, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has listed the names of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor on its website since 2004. When Cardinal Dolan made the decision to list these names, he faced a tremendous amount of criticism since the majority of those listed were never convicted of a crime. No other organization that I am aware of has taken such a drastic step to publicly identify perpetrators within its own organization. Our state legislators should demand public school districts to do the same for teachers and school employees who have been charged with sexual abuse.
Fourth, claimants’ attorneys said there are 75 new priests named in claims who are not listed on the archdiocesan website. What they neglected to say is that all of these priests are either dead or have been reported to the district attorney.
Fifth, claims filed in the Chapter 11 totaled approximately 570 claims. Attorneys representing abuse survivors have attempted to make the pool of claims as large as possible, including at least three tort attorneys who purchased television advertising to solicit clients. In a claims process, anyone can say anything about anybody. Now the system will evaluate those claims.
There is no excuse for what happened within the Church. But there is also no excuse for public officials or media to hold the Church to a different standard than other institutions in society.
As a Church, WE voluntarily hold ourselves to a higher standard. I wish each perpetrator could be punished under criminal law, but as the district attorneys tell us, that is not possible. Instead, the Church has imposed its own rigorous standards and consequences, as proven by the 44 priest-perpetrators listed on the archdiocesan website who either are no longer priests or can no longer serve in any public ministry. We exercise this degree of accountability regardless of the criminal statutes of limitations and it goes beyond what civil authorities can impose.
Since 2004, the archdiocese voluntarily implemented a mediation system that allowed abuse survivors to seek the resolution the criminal courts would not allow, namely, a way to receive assurance their perpetrator was held accountable and that they themselves received pastoral, spiritual, therapeutic and financial considerations. We fought to try and continue this mediation system in the bankruptcy proceeding, but claimants’ attorneys said “no.”
Our Safe Environment initiatives have trained more than 45,000 people who work with children; conducted criminal background checks on staff and volunteers; and provided tools and training for people to recognize suspicious behavior.
These continued attacks on the Church are to be expected. They’ve been happening in different forms for centuries. They have been elevated during this past decade when the Church has admittedly been humbled by the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Reporters, editorial writers and some legislators will use this opportunity to try and weaken the Church’s teaching authority, especially on social issues such as marriage, abortion, workers’ rights, health care and religious freedom. I will not allow that to happen.
In the Chapter 11 proceeding, our goals remain the same. The archdiocese wants to reach resolution with abuse survivors and continue its essential ministries for those who rely upon the Church for assistance.
During this penitential season of Lent, we must humble ourselves in front of our Lord, asking forgiveness for our sins and demonstrating our resolve to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again. As the leader of this Catholic community, I must also call for all involved in this proceeding to act justly and speak truthfully as we continue to reach out and attempt to bring healing through the mandate of Christ to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Note: this blog originally appeared as the Feb. 28, 2012 "Love One Another" email sent to Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. If you are interested in signing up for these emails, please click here.