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Wisconsin launches statewide effort for reporting, investigating clergy sex abuse

Published: Apr. 27, 2021 at 8:23 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - Wisconsin’s Department of Justice has launched a website and phone number to confidentially report clergy sex abuse.

Attorney General Josh Kaul announced a statewide effort to investigate clergy abuse during a news conference Tuesday. He was joined by survivors and family of clergy abuse victims.

The reporting tools are confidential. Survivors and those who know about abuse can use the tools to report it to the state.

WEBSITE: https://supportsurvivors.widoj.gov/

PHONE: 1-877-222-2620

“The people of Wisconsin, and especially victims, deserve an independent review of clergy and faith leader abuse,” said Attorney General Kaul. “With this initiative, we are seeking to ensure that survivors of clergy and faith leader abuse have access to needed victim services, to help prevent future cases of sexual assault, and to get accountability to the extent possible.”

The DOJ says there will be an independent and thorough review of sex abuse committed by clergy and faith leaders in Wisconsin. There’s no statute of limitations to report abuse.

“DOJ will gather information directly from survivors and their family, friends, and advocates through the contact number identified above and an online submission form at the website identified above. DOJ also hopes to receive documents and information from dioceses and religious orders in Wisconsin. As part of the review, victim advocates and/or sensitive crimes investigators may follow up with survivors to conduct trauma-informed interviews. To the extent that further investigation is necessary to support potential prosecutions, with the victim’s consent DOJ will refer those cases to local law enforcement and district attorneys,” says the DOJ.

The family of Nate Lindstrom joined the attorney general. Lindstrom died by suicide in 2020 at the age of 45. His family says Nate was a victim of clergy sex assault at Notre Dame Academy in the 1980s. Lindstrom’s father says Nate received about $420,000 in payments from the Norbertines at St. Norbert Abbey over the course of ten years.

David Lindstrom said the payments were only made after he and his wife approached the abbey with the allegations. “My son contracted [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] when he was 14-years-old, lived with it until he was 45, and then as a result of his illness he died by suicide,” David Lindstrom said.

The Norbertines say they’ve investigated the Lindstrom allegations and found them “to be not credible.”

The organization Nate’s Mission has been pushing for the Wisconsin Department of Justice to review clergy abuse “and institutional concealment and misconduct.”

Nate’s widow Karen Lindstrom urges survivors to come forward.

“I lost my husband. Our three young daughters lost their father. His siblings lost their brother. His parents lost their son. And we all lost a man of integrity who enhanced the world with his kind spirit and ethical art,” said Karen Lindstrom.

“Our family is lucky because Nate’s story has been widely heard. Thousands of others have not,” said Lindstrom. “We are here because victims like Nate need an avenue to justice driven by the state, and not from the inside of the very organization that abused them.”

St. Norbert Abbey’s website lists 22 priests with credible accusations of sexually abusing minors.

“Such an initiative,” said Peter Isely, Nate’s Mission Program Director and founding member of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), “demonstrates a profound commitment to all victims of sexual violence in our state. Most importantly, it is indicative of Attorney General Kaul’s commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads. This means, not only examining the conduct of church officials, but every person who has been involved in this decades-long cover-up, including corporate lawyers, church-hired third-party risk mitigation firms, insurance companies who knew about the crimes, and law enforcement.”

Officials with St. Norbert Abbey released this statement to Action 2 News late Tuesday afternoon regarding Kaul’s news conference:

St. Norbert Abbey joined the Attorney General on Monday in a meeting during which he talked about a review of historical abuse cases dating back over fifty years. The Attorney General spoke to representatives of the five Wisconsin dioceses as well as other Religious Orders. The Abbey takes the issue of sexual abuse of minors seriously and has put in place many policies, prevention and education correctives over the past twenty years. In 2019, the Abbey made public the names of members who had substantiated allegations and in 2021 added two names based on new allegations. An independent review board continues to examine every allegation brought forward to the Abbey. These allegations are also reported to law enforcement. The Abbey is currently undergoing an independent review of its files by the firm of Defenbaugh & Associates, Inc. of Kaufman, Texas. This review will continue until its completion in five to six months. The Attorney General’s office will be outlining additional specific guidelines soon. St. Norbert Abbey looks forward to reviewing this process.

St. Norbert Abbey

Brown County District Attorney David Lasee said his office will work with the state and survivors on possible prosecution for offenders.

“I look forward to collaborating with the attorney general’s office and with survivors to coordinate criminal prosecutions where that’s possible, but also to coordinate allowing victims to be heard and connected with services,” Lasee said.

Survivors say they they know it is hard to come forward, but it is necessary to report abuse so it doesn’t continue and happen to other children.

“I know many of you have gone through this before. You’ve gone to the church. You’ve gone to the police. You’ve gone to therapists. I know how difficult it’s going to be for many of you to come forward again. I want you to know, this time it’s different. Because this time, it’s confidential, it’s safe, and you have information. Right now, what these prosecutors need is evidence. They need evidence, they need witnesses, they need proof,” said Isely.

The DOJ has been in contact with the five Catholic Dioceses in Wisconsin and religious orders with priests to “discuss next steps.” The Green Bay Catholic Diocese released this statement in response to the Attorney General’s announcement:

“The Diocese of Green Bay, along with other Catholic dioceses and religious orders in Wisconsin, participated in the Attorney General’s conference call on Monday, April 26. We understand that this is a review of past cases and does not imply that there are any new allegations against active priests or deacons in the Green Bay Diocese. At this point, we have not received any formal written request from the AG’s office. Once we receive such a request, the diocese will review and respond appropriately at that time.

“We wish to emphasize that the Diocese of Green Bay remains dedicated to the protection of children and vulnerable adults. The diocese has, over the past several decades, implemented a variety of tools to ensure the safety of every person in the diocese, including background checks, rigorous safe environment training and education, mandatory reporting mechanisms and outreach to survivors of abuse. As part of this effort, in the fall of 2018, the diocese engaged an independent investigative firm to conduct an outside review of the files of all diocesan priests and deacons. Their review led to the release of our list of clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor in January 2019. We will continue to walk with victims/survivors in their process of healing.”

If you are ever in a time of crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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