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Rochester diocese says it has acted in ‘good faith’ in mediation with abuse survivors

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Rochester, New York / DanielPenfield via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Washington D.C., Jun 11, 2021 / 10:02 am (CNA).

The Diocese of Rochester on Thursday said it has been acting in “good faith,” in response to claims by clergy abuse survivors that the diocese is stalling in bankruptcy mediation proceedings. 

“The Diocese has acted in good faith over the course of multiple mediation sessions and is committed to continuing those good faith negotiations with its insurers and the Creditors Committee,” a spokesperson for the diocese told CNA in a statement on Thursday.

The diocese, which filed for bankruptcy in September 2019, had entered into negotiations with victims of sex abuse during the bankruptcy proceedings. 

A bankruptcy court judge in 2019 ordered mediation talks between the parties. There have been 475 abuse claims filed in the bankruptcy proceedings. Some victims claimed that the diocese is intentionally prolonging the talks and pushing off a solution. 

"They're waiting for us to say, 'Okay, we don't care, let's get this over with,'" Carol Dupre, a sex abuse victim in the case, told 13WHAM. Attorneys for 20 survivors are now pushing for their cases to be moved to a state court for trial, 13WHAM reported.

In court papers filed on Tuesday, attorneys for the unsecured creditors committee argued that court-ordered mediation has been unsuccessful and the diocese has not offered acceptable compensation. 

“The Committee has attempted to mediate a reasonable and appropriate settlement with the Diocese and its insurers. However, to date, the mediation has not been successful,” the attorneys stated.

“The Diocese and its insurers have not offered an amount remotely acceptable as fair compensation to Sexual Abuse Claimants. Therefore, the Committee has concluded that the logjams of the mediation can best be addressed through litigation of a sample group of cases in the state courts that are best suited to adjudicate sexual abuse claims in the State of New York,” the filing stated.

The Diocese responded to the motion on Thursday, saying that continued negotiations are necessary.

“The Diocese believes that continued dialogue and negotiation among the Diocese, its insurers and the Creditors Committee that is guided by reasonable and realistic expectations on the part of all concerned and a dedication to swift and just resolution for all survivors is the best and proper course to benefit survivors,” the diocese stated.

If the cases are moved to state court, jury trials could result in the exposure of sensitive information of the church. Prosecuting attorneys say the Diocese is using bankruptcy to hide such sensitive information, 13WHAM reported. 

Citing its goal mentioned in the September 2019 bankruptcy filing, the diocese reaffirmed its desire to “bring this matter to a conclusion as soon as possible in order to continue the work of healing and reconciliation, both for survivors and our diocesan family.”

The diocese’s legal team will be afforded the opportunity to make its case in court before a decision is made on the motion to move the cases to another court.

Pope Francis’ inspection of Vatican Congregation for Clergy one of many to come

View of St. Peter's Basilica. / Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

Vatican City, Jun 11, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).

For the second time in months, Pope Francis has ordered an inspection of a top Vatican dicastery whose head will step down, revealing a modus operandi that might be replicated in other transitions.

The news of the inspection emerged days before the appointment of the congregation’s new prefect, the South Korean Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, on June 11.

Bishop Egidio Miragoli of Mondovì, in northern Italy, told priests of his diocese on June 7 that the pope had entrusted him with an inspection of the Congregation for the Clergy, responsible for the world’s diocesan priests and deacons.

Miragoli began the inspection last Wednesday, and he anticipated that the inspections would last “for the whole month of June” and commit him “from two to three days per week.”

He also said that the pope told him in a private meeting on June 3 about the scope of the inspection.

No official information on the inspection has been released.

According to a source close to the Congregation for the Clergy, the inspection “is conducted via interviews and talks with the Congregation officials.”

“Pope Francis wants to focus on tasks and roles of each member of the congregation, to decide how to better organize the staff for the new prefect,” the source said.

Bishop You succeeds Cardinal Beniamino Stella. One of the pope’s closest confidants, Stella turns 80 on Aug. 18, meaning that he will be five years older than the customary age for retirement. On June 11, the Vatican said that Stella would remain in the post until his successor takes office.

Miragoli has already begun the inspection and had one-to-one meetings with some of the congregation’s officials, the source said.

In March, Bishop Claudio Maniago of Castellaneta, southern Italy, inspected the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments. Also in that case, there was no official release about the inspection and the scope of the inspection was not revealed. Maniago reportedly concluded the inspection quite quickly.

The inspection began after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah, who had served as prefect of the congregation since 2014. Sarah resigned because he had turned 75, the age when a bishop is expected to retire.

According to the source, Pope Francis is willing to send an inspection any time a transition occurs in the Roman Curia.

“The next dicasteries to be inspected might be the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches,” he said.

The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who just turned 77. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, will be 78 in November.

The source maintained that the inspections were “not intended as a punishment, but as a way to enact the curia reform.”

The reform, which has been under discussion ever since Pope Francis’ election in 2013, will change the composition of the curia, merge some dicasteries into others and tweak the statutes of each dicastery to better fit with the pope’s indications, with priority given to the notion of a “missionary Church.”

According to the source, Bishop Miragoli came to the pope’s attention while he was serving in the college for the examination of appeals in matters of delicta reservata (serious offenses) at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Pope Francis appointed Miragoli as a member of the college on July 29. 2019.

The college’s president is Archbishop Charles Scicluna, archbishop of Malta and adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Secular group wins case to install mock nativity display at Texas capitol

Display by Freedom from Religion Foundation at the Iowa state capitol, 2016 / Freedom from Religion Foundation

Washington D.C., Jun 11, 2021 / 08:01 am (CNA).

After a six-year court battle, a secular group will be permitted to install a “Bill of Rights Nativity Exhibit” at the Texas Capitol following a federal court decision last month.

The secular advocacy group Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit six years ago to install a mock nativity display at the Texas state capitol building. 

The “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” mimics the traditional nativity scene with St. Joseph, the Blessed Mother, and the infant Jesus. Instead of the Holy Family, the “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” features the Statue of Liberty in the place of the Blessed Mother, with the founding fathers of the United States surrounding the Bill of Rights in a manger. 

The foundation sued Abbott in 2016 after it was not permitted to keep its display at the state capitol in December 2015. A Christian nativity scene was, however, allowed to be displayed. The Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed that Abbott violated their rights to free speech with the removal of the display. 

In denying the secular exhibit to the foundation, the state of Texas violated the group’s First Amendment rights and engaged in unlawful “viewpoint discrimination,” Judge Lee Yeakel said in his May 5 decision siding with the foundation. Yeakel issued an injunction which barred the State Preservation Board from ever blocking the group from showcasing their display at the capitol.

The foundation says it “works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for freethought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”

Abbott had the “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” removed three days after it was installed. He criticized the display, saying it was offensive and served no educational purpose. 

Previously, the Freedom From Religion Foundation was victorious in district court, which ruled its free speech rights were violated. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court in April 2020, asking for a permanent injunction protecting the free speech rights of the group. 

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it had obtained the proper permits for the display and was sponsored by a Texas legislator. The organization also had a sign celebrating the winter solstice, noting it was close to the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. 

The group’s mock display at the Iowa capitol in 2016 also featured figures of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Statue of Liberty, all “gazing in adoration at a ‘baby’ Bill of Rights.” The group said their “tongue-in-cheek” display was a response to a Christian nativity scene at the state capitol.

"At this Season of the Winter Solstice, join us in honoring the Bill of Rights, adopted on December 15, 1791, which reminds us there can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent," a sign beside the Iowa display stated. The sign added, "Keep religion and government separate!"

The foundation was involved in two other cases in May and June related to religious displays and public prayer in Texas. In May, a federal district court judge ruled that a county judge in Texas had to stop opening court sessions with prayer led by a chaplain, after the foundation sued to curb the prayer. In June, the foundation insisted that a Texas public hospital remove a prayer banner from an employee parking garage.

Pope Francis names new prefect of Vatican Congregation for Clergy

Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. / Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

Vatican City, Jun 11, 2021 / 06:57 am (CNA).

Pope Francis Friday named Bishop Lazarus You Heung-sik as the new prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy.

The 69-year-old bishop is the first Korean to lead a Vatican congregation.

He succeeds the Italian Cardinal Beniamino Stella, who led the Vatican dicastery responsible for overseeing the world’s diocesan priests and deacons from 2013. Stella will turn 80 on Aug. 18 and will remain in the post until his successor takes office.

You is the second Asian to lead the Congregation for the Clergy, following the Filipino Cardinal José Tomás Sánchez, who led the dicastery from 1991 to 1996.

He is also the second Asian now leading one of the Vatican’s nine congregations, alongside Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and former archbishop of Manila in the Philippines.

Pope Francis has made several trips to Asia since his election in 2013 and reportedly told Tagle in 2015 that he believed that “the future of the Church is in Asia.”

The pope is said to have ordered an inspection of the Congregation for the Clergy ahead of the transition to You’s leadership. He asked for a similar visitation of the Congregation for Divine Worship before he appointed its new prefect, Archbishop Arthur Roche.

You has led the Diocese of Daejeon in South Korea from 2005, after being appointed as coadjutor bishop in 2003.

He was born in the city of Nonsan on Nov. 17, 1951. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Daejeon on Dec. 9, 1979.

He hosted Pope Francis in his diocese in August 2014 when the pope took part in the Sixth Asian Youth Day by celebrating Mass in Daejeon World Cup Stadium.

He has made multiple trips to North Korea on behalf of the South Korean bishops’ conference.

You attended the youth synod in Rome in 2018. During a synod press briefing on Oct. 11, 2018, he said that it would be “beautiful” if there could be a papal visit to North Korea, but “in reality, there are many steps to take.”

“But before you do something you have to do the groundwork. When the groundwork is done, the pope can go,” he told journalists.

Vatican Becciu investigation: Searches carried out at Sardinian diocese, social cooperative

Cardinal Angelo Becciu. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Jun 11, 2021 / 05:50 am (CNA).

Searches were carried out this week on the Italian island of Sardinia in connection with a Vatican investigation into accusations of embezzlement by Cardinal Angelo Becciu.

The searches took place at the offices of Spes Cooperative, a limited liability corporation owned and legally represented by Becciu’s brother Antonino, as well as at the Diocese of Ozieri and its diocesan charity, Caritas.

Ozieri is the former diocese of Becciu, who is from Sardinia.

Rome prosecutor Maria Teresa Gerace is reported to have ordered the searches at the request of Vatican prosecutors.

Becciu’s lawyer issued a statement June 10 welcoming the search and insisting that a review of documents would show that Becciu’s actions were legitimate.

He said that an investigation into the documents taken in the searches “can only further confirm the absolute correctness of the conduct of His Eminence Cardinal Becciu, the Diocese of Ozieri, and the Spes social cooperative, whose work is free from censure of any order and grade and perfectly responds to institutional prerogatives and purposes.”

In a statement on Facebook, Becciu’s brother Mario said that the raid had been requested in October 2020 but was only carried out now, by Italy’s financial police.

He also said that the documents would show the allegations of embezzlement against his brother to be false.

“There was no passing of money between brothers!” he wrote. “The overwhelming truth will speak for itself.”

Becciu, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, is expected to stand trial at the Vatican for charges related to financial malfeasance while he was the sostituto, or second-ranking official, at the Secretariat of State.

Portfolio statements made public in media reports last year showed that Becciu had directed Vatican and Italian bishops’ money to go toward “loans” for projects owned and operated by his brothers.

The Italian weekly L’Espresso reported in September 2020 that Becciu obtained two loans from the Italian bishops’ conference to pay out two non-repayable loans of 300,000 euros ($364,000) each to Spes Cooperative in 2013 and 2015.

In 2018, Becciu gave a third sum to Spes Cooperative of 100,000 euros ($121,000) from Peter’s Pence, of which he had control as then sostituto.

The L’Espresso report was published as Becciu resigned as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from the rights extended to members of the College of Cardinals on Sept. 24, 2020.

According to reports, the large proceeds of the companies of the Becciu brothers were later reinvested in low-risk safe-haven equity, holding, and financial packages.

Income generated from these investments was then reinvested in funds previously invested in by the Secretariat of State, such as the Centurion Fund, which has links to two Swiss banks investigated or implicated in bribery and money laundering scandals.

Bishop Corrado Melis of Ozieri said that he was saddened by the search, which he called “an unnecessarily painful path.” He added that the diocese would have cooperated in handing over documents to the Holy See.

The frequent and proper organization of the diocesan accounts “constitute a guarantee of regular and transparent management” of the spiritual and charitable activities of the Diocese of Ozieri, he said.

In his statement, the bishop said that the search of the diocese was carried out by the Vatican gendarmes. The Vatican gendarmes do not have jurisdiction over Italian territory.

Vatican imposes term limits for leaders of ecclesial movements to stop ‘violations and abuses’

Cardinal Kevin Farrell. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Jun 11, 2021 / 05:10 am (CNA).

The Vatican issued a decree Friday setting limits on the terms of leaders of international associations of the faithful and new communities.

In an introduction to the June 11 norms, the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life said that it wanted to define “the criteria for prudently guiding government” in lay ecclesial movements.

The dicastery said that it therefore “considered it necessary to regulate the terms of office in government, with regard to their duration and number, as well as the representativeness of governing bodies, in order to promote a healthy renewal and to prevent misappropriations that have indeed led to violations and abuses.”

The new decree limits the terms of office in the central governing body to a maximum of five years, with one person being able to hold positions at the international governing level for no more than 10 years consecutively. Re-election is then possible after a vacancy of one term.

The decree states that founders can be exempted from the term limits at the discretion of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life.

The norms, signed by dicastery prefect Cardinal Kevin Farrell, come into force on Sept. 11.

In a note explaining the decree, the dicastery said that “infrequently, for those called to govern, the absence of limits in terms of office favors forms of appropriation of the charism, personalization, centralization, and expressions of self-referentiality which can easily cause serious violations of personal dignity and freedom, and even real abuses.”

“Furthermore, bad government inevitably creates conflicts and tensions which injure communion and weaken missionary dynamism.”

A change of leadership in governing bodies can also be a benefit to lay movements, it added. “It provides an opportunity for creative growth and stimulates investment in training. It reinvigorates faithfulness to the charism, breathes new life and efficacy to the interpretation of the signs of the times, and encourages new and updated paths of missionary action.”

The dicastery said that it would allow for the possibility of dispensing founders from the term limits in recognition of the key role they play in many international associations and “to allow sufficient time to ensure that the charism received by them might be appropriately received in the Church and be faithfully assimilated by members.”

“Pope Francis, in line with his predecessors, suggests understanding the demands that the path of ecclesial maturity makes upon the associations of the faithful in a perspective of missionary conversion,” the explanatory note said.

It noted that Pope Francis has indicated the importance of respecting personal freedom and overcoming self-referentiality, unilateralism, and absolutization.

Quoting Francis’ 2014 address to ecclesial movements, it explained that “indeed, ‘real communion cannot exist in movements or in new communities unless these are integrated within the greater communion of our Holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.’”

In the same speech, Pope Francis underlined the need for ecclesial maturity, urging communities to “not forget, however, that to reach this goal, conversion must be missionary: the strength to overcome temptations and insufficiencies comes from the profound joy of proclaiming the Gospel, which is the foundation of your charisms.”

“This is the interpretative key that allows us to understand the ecclesial meaning of this decree,” the laity dicastery said, “aiming, as it does, to overcome ‘temptations and insufficiencies’ encountered in how government is exercised within associations of the faithful.”

Vatican bank reports $44 million profit in pandemic year

The Institute for Religious Works, commonly known as the ‘Vatican bank.’ Credit: Joi via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Vatican City, Jun 11, 2021 / 04:45 am (CNA).

The Institute for Religious Works, commonly known as the “Vatican bank,” announced Friday that it recorded a net profit of $44 million in 2020.

Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, president of the Supervisory Commission of Cardinals, said that he was “delighted” by the figure considering the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the global economy.

Writing in the institute’s 2020 annual report, he said: “The institute obtained a net profit of EUR 36.4 million [$44 million], compared to EUR 38 million [$46 million] of the previous year.”

“This is a very significant result, with which I was delighted, considering the low yields that currently characterize the financial markets, let alone the high volatility caused by the pandemic.”

He continued: “This is also a highly opportune result, bearing in mind that this year the Holy See has lost much of its income from its most substantial contributor, namely the Vatican Museums, which were closed for a large part of the year due to the pandemic.”

The institute, also known by its Italian initials, IOR, said June 11 that the commission of cardinals had decided to give 75% of the profits to the pope, with the remaining 25% used to increase the institute’s equity.

It noted that it had 645.9 million euros ($784 million) of net equity as of Dec. 31, 2020, after distributing the 2020 profit.

The IOR, based in Vatican City State, has 107 employees and 14,991 clients. It looks after 5 billion euros ($6 billion) of client assets, of which 3.3 billion euros ($4 billion) are assets managed for third parties or under custody.

The IOR published its financial statements in its annual report for the ninth consecutive year. It said that its 2020 financial statements were audited by the global auditing firm Mazars, “with a clean opinion report.”

Writing in the annual report, Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló recalled that the institute published its internal regulations for the first time in its history in 2020.

He said that the step was “intended to give practical effect” to the institute’s statutes, which were renewed in 2019, “regulating in detail the powers and competences of the various governing bodies.”

Catholic bishops urge G7 to work for ‘just’ and ‘sustainable’ future

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, in 2019. / UK Government (OGL 3).

London, England, Jun 11, 2021 / 03:30 am (CNA).

On the eve of the G7 summit in Cornwall, Catholic bishops across Britain called on leaders to work for a “just” and “sustainable” future.

In a letter to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the bishops appealed for economic support in the wake of the pandemic, increased help for developing nations, and greater urgency in meeting environmental targets.

“We now have a responsibility -- especially as more wealthy nations -- to respond quickly to financially support actions for the benefit of our whole human family and the planet, whether this be our own communities, or those separated from us by distance but intimately connected to us by our dependence on the biodiversity of our common home,” the bishops wrote in the letter dated June 7 and released June 9.

The letter was signed by Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton, Bishop John Arnold of Salford, and Bishop William Nolan of Galloway.

The U.K. has the presidency of the G7 in 2021 and is hosting G7 leaders -- from the U.S., Canada, Japan, France, Germany, and Italy -- in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, on June 11-13.

The bishops urged leaders to “provide economic support towards a sustainable recovery from the pandemic, and to move quickly to halt the biodiversity loss the planet is facing.”

They also asked them to “act to support developing nations, ensuring that they are not left behind in decision making, and have fair access to vaccines.”

Finally, they called on them “to meet targets set out in the Paris Agreement and move as quickly as possible towards a zero-carbon economy, so that we do not exceed the 1.5°C [2.7°F] temperature rise, beyond which life on our planet will face dire consequences.”

“Our future must be sustainable, and it must also be just,” the bishops concluded.

Caritas Internationalis, an umbrella body for 164 national Catholic aid and development agencies, also issued an appeal to the group of seven wealthy industrialized nations ahead of the summit.

The organization called for steps to “encourage private creditors to participate in debt relief and restructuring initiatives,” as well as increased funding for pandemic recovery.

It also highlighted the role of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The SDR is an international reserve asset created by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bolster member countries’ official reserves.

Caritas Internationalis encouraged G7 countries to “explore options to utilize their SDRs to support countries in the global south, including middle-income countries, in ways that do not increase debt and conditionality.”

Aloysius John, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, said: “COVID-19 put the rampant social injustices in today’s world under a magnifying glass. The only way to rebuild the future must be by eliminating such injustices.”

Pro-life leaders warn of 'egregious' new pro-abortion bill

Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 10, 2021 / 18:01 pm (CNA).

Pro-life leaders warn that an “egregious” bill introduced this week in Congress would override most state abortion regulations, require health care workers to perform abortions, and mandate federal funding of abortion.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), along with Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), re-introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act on Tuesday. 

The bill has been introduced in each Congress since 2013, but has never received a vote in either chamber. In a joint release, the member offices said the bill has 48 total co-sponsors in the Senate and 176 in the House. 

If it were enacted into law, the bill would grant patients the right to undergo an abortion, and health care workers the right to perform an abortion. It would prohibit states from restricting abortions through laws requiring mandatory ultrasounds or waiting periods before an abortion. It would also block restrictions on pre-viability abortions and on the method of abortions. 

Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, told CNA in an email that the "misnamed Women's Health Protection Act seeks to foist Congressional Democrats' radical abortion agenda on the American public.” 

“Among other extreme policies, the bill would eliminate nearly all state laws that regulate abortion and force objecting hospitals and medical professionals to perform or participate in the life-ending procedure,” McClusky said. “It would also do away with popular pro-life riders like the Hyde amendment which protect Americans from paying for abortions with their tax dollars.” 

He argued that Democrats “have decided to serve the abortion lobby's interests over the American public which opposes unlimited abortions paid for by taxpayers."

In a statement, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, called the bill “egregious” and “deceptively named.” 

“While most Americans want reasonable pro-life protections for unborn children, pro-abortion Democrats are moving swiftly in the opposite direction,” Dannenfelser said. “This radical bill would destroy existing pro-life protections at the state level and prevent future pro-life limits from being enacted.” 

“This a direct attack on the will of the people as demonstrated by the groundswell of pro-life legislation we’ve seen this year,” she said. 

The lawmakers described the re-introduction of the bill as a response to the Supreme Court taking up the case of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

In a statement, Chu said in light of that case, “the fight to protect abortion rights for all Americans is more critical than ever.” 

Mississippi’s law “is part of a deliberate strategy by anti-abortion extremists to use state laws and the courts to slowly chip away at abortion access, with nearly 500 restrictive laws introduced in states since just 2011,” she said. 

“That is why we need the Women’s Health Protection Act to ensure that no matter where you live, what your background is, or what your zip code, you have the same rights to make decisions about your own body as anyone else,” she said. 

Blumenthal said in a statement that the Dobbs case means the high court will “consider a direct attack on Roe and as emboldened and extremist lawmakers viciously attack women’s reproductive rights in statehouses across the nation.”

He argued that the Women’s Health Protection Act “has never been more urgent or more necessary.” 

“These demagogic and draconian laws hurt women and families as they make personal and difficult medical decisions,” Blumenthal said. 

“This issue is about more than health care, it’s about human rights—all our rights. I’m proud to join this historic coalition of lawmakers in introducing the Women’s Health Protection Act and look forward to taking the next step towards seeing it passed into law by holding a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee on the bill next week,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris, while she ran for president in 2019, had proposed a policy based off a previous version of the Women's Health Protection Act - which she co-sponsored as a senator.

As a presidential candidate, Harris promised that her Justice Department would review any state abortion restrictions to ensure they complied with Roe v. Wade and the Women's Health Protection Act.

In pushback against AG inquiry, Wisconsin Catholics cite decades of church vigilance against abuse

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Sulfur via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Denver Newsroom, Jun 10, 2021 / 17:04 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is citing decades of Catholic efforts to prevent sex abuse, along with judicial statements and reviews of Church documents, as among the reasons it is pushing back against a state inquiry into clergy abuse.

In April, Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul had announced the launch of an investigation into alleged sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses and at least three religious orders. Kaul said he planned to review reports of abuse by clergy and faith leaders “with support from district attorneys, survivor groups, and crime victim services professionals.” 

In response, the Milwaukee archdiocese says that judges, civil authorities, and an outside firm have already reviewed their documents - multiple times - and a bankruptcy judge has declared no concern for public safety after reviewing abuse claims.

“Our assertion is the Church is being unfairly singled out by this investigation,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, told CNA on June 9. “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.”

“Archdiocesan files have been reviewed multiple times over the past 30 years,” Topczewski added. “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’,” Topczewski added.

Kaul portrayed his investigation as “an independent review” of reports of clergy abuse that aimed “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 Wisconsin Department of Justice said it would start by requesting documents and information from Catholic dioceses and religious orders, but also encouraged victims to report sexual abuse committed by any members of religious organizations. 

The agency said that “although one of the goals of this initiative is to verify the accuracy of public lists of priests credibly accused of abuse, ultimately, it is up to the church to decide which names are included on their lists.”

Topczewski, however, suggested the inquiry’s focus will end up falling disproportionately on the Catholic Church.

“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,” he said. 

Topczewski contended that this specific request violates the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause prohibition against the “disfavoring of a particular religion.”

The archdiocese has pledged to provide its records in cases of new allegations made against living priests, he said. 

“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,” Topczewski said.

“There has been one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a diocesan priest since 2000. This reinforces the historical nature of these crimes and indicates that education and prevention efforts are effective,” he said. 

Four of the state’s five dioceses, as well as the Jesuits and the Norbertines, have already disclosed the names of priests credibly accused of sex abuse. The Diocese of Superior is gathering its own list with the intent to publish it by the end of the year. 

In total, 177 Catholic priests have been identified as credibly accused of abusing minors - though the incidents took place as far ago as the 1950s. Some of the accused priests themselves died decades ago.

The Milwaukee archdiocese’s attorney Frank LoCoco responded to the attorney general’s announced plans in a June 1 letter. LoCoco similarly emphasized Catholic efforts to investigate and prevent abuse, but also suggested the attorney general’s efforts were “unlawful” given that many records are under court seal.

LoCoco noted that the archdiocese has already made public on its website the documents and chronologies related to the clergy listed as credibly accused of abuse. He cited trends in sex abuse claims which indicate that sex abuse by clergy peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, then declined significantly.

Of the 578 claimants who filed claims against the Milwaukee archdiocese, 99% of them involved allegations that predate the year 1990, he said.

Topcziewski argued that the Catholic Church has taken effective action against sex abuse, and its recent record shows this.

“Over the past 20 years, no institution in the United States has done more to combat the evil of this societal issue,” Topcziewski told CNA. “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.”

“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,” he said. 

LoCoco said that many of the archdiocesan records remain under seal due to both previous bankruptcy court proceedings and abuse survivors’ own decisions to file their claims under seal. The Office of the Attorney General received a copy of the relevant court order in 2011.

“Fewer than 5% of the claimants, a total of 28, filed their Proofs of Claim on the public docket,” LoCoco stated. “The remaining claims were filed under seal based on the Bankruptcy Court protections. Even today, these proofs of claim remain under seal and cannot be made public as required by the final, non-appealable order of the Bankruptcy Court.”

LoCoco cited an effort in 2012 to release some statistical information from the records “because certain lawyers such as Jeff Anderson and certain advocates such as Peter Isely had made irresponsible and untrue allegations that children were at risk within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”

During a bankruptcy court hearing which rejected these claims, former Chief Judge Susan Kelley said her review “shows there is no public safety concerns with those claims – none whatsoever. The claims are old, the claims are by these known abusers with very few exceptions.”

LoCoco said there have already been significant financial expenditures to investigate abuse in the Milwaukee archdiocese, as well as to find potential victims.

During the Chapter 11 proceedings, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee produced some 60,000 pages of documents for the lawyers representing abuse victims and the official committee of unsecured creditors, which then chose the documents to be made public. The document review cost the archdiocese some $600,000.

The archdiocese spent “several hundred thousand dollars” to provide notice to abuse survivors to file a claim before the Feb. 1, 2012 deadline established by the court.

Several lawyers representing abuse survivors, the archdiocese estimated, spent more than $1 million to find alleged victims.

Compliance with the attorney general’s request would involve “another six-figure expenditure of lawyers’ fees and untold staff hours for just the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” LoCoco said.

In a June 1 email to Catholics in the archdiocese, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee said the archdiocese would cooperate with any “proper” state investigation, including providing records related to any living priest accused of abuse.

“While the archdiocese has done a lot, we can and should do more, and that includes cooperating with the attorney general in any proper inquiry he might undertake,” Archbishop Listecki said.

“As such, we will once again 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,” he said.

However, he expressed “significant doubt that the attorney general has the legal authority to conduct such an investigation,” and added that the archdiocese has “legitimate concerns that his inquiry is directly targeting only the Catholic Church.”

“We believe we have offered a way to provide what the attorney general has requested while continuing to walk with survivors, maintaining the Church’s rights and avoiding unnecessary expense,” he said.

In April the Madison diocese, the Green Bay diocese, and the La Crosse diocese noted their own reviews of records. The Superior diocese has hired an outside firm, Defenbaugh & Associates, to conduct an independent third-party review of clergy files. The diocese said it is “in the process of using the independent report to list the names of clergy against whom substantiated child sexual abuse claims have been made.”