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Catholic Church Meltdown

In November 2006, an in-depth story in this magazine by Mary Van de Kamp Nohl documented the problems facing the Milwaukee archdiocese. This is a very Catholic metro area, where 30 percent of the people once identified themselves as Catholic, compared to 22 percent nationally.

One measure of that strong Catholicism was Mass attendance. In the 1990s, the story reported, some 40 percent of 675,000 Catholics – about 270,000 – attended weekend Mass. But by 2005, Nohl found, that had dropped to about 29 percent.

Things have gotten even worse since then. Buried toward the back of a recent Journal Sentinel story by Tom Heinen was a statistic showing that weekend mass attendance was down to about 165,000 people, or 24 percent of registered parishioners. In just over a decade, the number of Catholics regularly attending Mass dropped from 270,000 to 165,000. That’s stunning.

The revulsion over the many examples of sexual abuse by clergy has doubtlessly soured many Catholics. But the coverup by Catholic officials has compounded the problem. Our story this month by Jessica McBride on an abusive nun, Sister Norma Giannini, recounts years of active and passive attempts by both the Sisters of Mercy and archdiocesan officials to frustrate the victims in their attempts to seek justice.

Yesterday, Brother David Nickerson, another clergy member accused of sex crimes against children, made his first appearance in court at the Milwaukee County Courthouse.

That makes the 16th cleric arrested and brought back to Wisconsin since the sex abuse scandal erupted some six years ago, according to the Wisconsin chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. SNAP has repeatedly called for the Milwaukee archdiocese to turn over to law enforcement authorities all files concerning any religious order priest, nun or cleric transferred out of state under suspicion of child sexual abuse.

The archdiocese has offered no signals it will do so. Meanwhile, more cases of abuse keep arising, further eroding the church’s moral authority and its standing with once-loyal Catholics.