Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee
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On April 3rd, I informed you of my decision to authorize the release of documents related to diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. These documents are scheduled to be posted to the archdiocesan website next week and I’m sure they will generate many stories in the news.
We have worked with the attorneys for abuse survivors who identified almost 6,000 pages of documents they believe should be made public and that best demonstrate how the archdiocese handled allegations of sexual abuse, responded to reports, and dealt with offending priests. Those are the documents that will be posted.
My hope in voluntarily making these documents public is that they will aid abuse survivors, families, and others in understanding the past, reviewing the present and allowing the Church in southeastern Wisconsin to continue moving forward. We can never tell abuse survivors enough how sorry we are for what they endured. My apology goes out to all who have been harmed and I continue to offer to meet with any individual abuse survivors who would find it helpful.
What we do today in responding to reports of abuse is different than in decades past but that fact does not erase the past. The documents present one part of the history of what happened and demonstrate how people tried to do their best with what they knew at the time. We may never have the complete picture because the records are not always clear and there is no way to delve more deeply because many of the people involved are dead or have had memories fade as 20, 30 or 40 years or more have passed.
But, we know that bad things happened to innocent children and youth. The arc of understanding sexual abuse of a minor progressed from being seen as a moral failing and sin that needed personal resolve and spiritual direction; to a psychological deficiency that required therapy and could be cured; to issues of addiction requiring more extensive therapy and restrictions on ministry; to recognition of the long-term effects of abuse and the need to hold the perpetrator accountable for this criminal activity.
Acknowledging our past means examining how the Church, especially its bishops and priests, dealt with this issue over the years. It includes facing up to mistakes that were made, even if some of those mistakes become apparent only in hindsight. It means demonstrating our resolve to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again. Today, I am confident that no organization in the world does more to combat sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church in the United States.
Needless to say, there are some terrible things described in many of the documents. Reading accounts of sexual abuse, whether by a priest, teacher, coach or family member, are ugly and unpleasant. I worry about the reactions of abuse survivors when confronted again with this material and pray it doesn’t have a negative effect on them. I want everyone to be aware that systems are in place for professional therapy and counseling. These brothers and sisters of ours need and deserve all the prayers and support we can provide.
I also worry about our Catholic people and people in general. News about this topic can shake one’s faith. In fact, if you decide to go and review this material, prepare to be shocked. There are some graphic descriptions about the behavior of some of these priest offenders and one must be prepared before encountering such material.
I’ve heard people say, what was so difficult? A child was abused; the priest should be put in jail. That sentiment probably best reflects the change in societal thinking over the decades and these documents show the progression and evolution of thinking on this topic. In the documents are examples of parents wanting the bishop to know about Father’s behavior, but not wanting the police involved. There are examples of doctors and therapists in the 1970s, seemingly more concerned about “Father” than about the children, operating on a professional belief that there would be no long-lasting impact on a young child. The vast majority of reports were not about events involving a current minor, but about adults reporting something in the past that happened to them decades ago, meaning no criminal charges could be pursued.
I do not offer this as an excuse, but rather, as examples of the complexity of the topic and the context in which decisions were made. In dealing with reports, I am convinced those who served in positions of authority may have been ill-equipped to deal with the topic and relied upon the advice of medical professionals who provided therapy to perpetrators. I’m convinced that those professionals did their very best, given what they knew at that moment in time. It is easy to question decisions of the past with the insight of today, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the Church and society began to better understand this topic. It was then that the first formal programs of response and outreach to abuse survivors emerged and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was a leader, nationally, in that area, along with the development of policies and protocols to deal with offenders.
In general, the documents show some of the following themes:
Terrible things happened to innocent children.
People were ill-equipped to respond -- to victims and families, and to perpetrators.
Church leaders and other professionals tried their best to deal with the issue given the knowledge available at the time.
Reports of abuse were often not brought to the archdiocese or civil authorities until decades after they occurred.
The archdiocese consistently showed care and concern for abuse survivors, and paid for therapy for individuals who were harmed.
The incidents of abuse date back 25, 50, even 80 years.
The majority of perpetrators were not known to the archdiocese until years after they committed the abuse.
In the 1970s and 80s, priests were often removed from their parish for “medical reasons,” sent for counseling and, based upon a recommendation from their therapist or medical professional, reassigned to another parish.
Twenty-two priests were reassigned to parish work after concerns about their behavior were known to the archdiocese.
Eight of those 22 priests reoffended after being reassigned.
Civil authorities did not always pursue investigations and neither did the archdiocese.
Even when priests were prosecuted and found guilty or pled no contest, they often received probation as a sentence and did not go to jail.
People often reported concerns about a priest that were not instances of sexual abuse, but rather concerns about unusual or questionable behaviors, such as uninvited attention/affection -- what we know today as possible signs of “grooming.”
In the early 1990s, a more formalized approach of outreach to abuse survivors and in dealing with offenders began to emerge.
These are not easy moments for the Church, but I am strengthened by the consistent promise of prayers and support from the people in the archdiocese. Our hope is that the publication of these documents can help bring this chapter of our history to a close and allow us to continue to focus on our desire to work with abuse survivors, and to focus on education and prevention. We pray for those who are abuse survivors and pledge our continued support for those who have been harmed, following the Lord’s command to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Note: This blog originally appeared as the June 25, 2013 "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 email messages, please click here.