Clergy Abuse Victim’s Story Shows Clear Need for AG Intervention in Wisconsin
Yesterday, the Green Bay Press Gazette released a detailed and well-researched account of clergy abuse survivor Nate Lindstrom. Nate was sexually abused as a teenager by three Norbertine priests from the St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin. Although the abuse he endured was never formally recognized by the church, Nate received monthly payments from the St. Norbert Abbey for over ten years specifically to cover treatment costs. The payments suddenly stopped in May 2019. On March 9th, 2020, Nate died by suicide.
Nate's case is one of many in which church authorities are allowed by Wisconsin state justice officials, with absolutely no review and oversight, to investigate, determine, and control child sex abuse claims. Even after years of scandal, church officials still determine if a report is true or not, what action will be taken against offenders, and what, if any, treatment and compensation is provided for victims, often in exchange for silence.
This past summer, former Milwaukee Franciscan Paul West was arrested to face child sexual assault charges in Wisconsin and Mississippi. Evidence shows that his Wisconsin-based religious order lied to victims as to the criminal statute of limitations in order to prevent West from being prosecuted. The order then demanded signed secrecy agreements from victims, not represented by counsel, in exchange for $10,000 "settlements."
At least 20 state attorneys general are currently investigating the church for similar patterns and practices of abuse and cover up. Last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James brought a suit against the diocese of Buffalo for covering up sexual abuse allegations and using charitable assets to support offender priests who were allowed to retire or go on leave. Astonishingly, following a 2016 bankruptcy settlement for fraudulent conduct by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee - and at the urging of church officials - at least 100 names of alleged offenders and reports of abuse by sexually abusive clerics were sealed in federal court. There are over 8,000 incidents of abuse detailed in bankruptcy files. None of these have been reviewed by law enforcement. To date, they appear to have made no efforts to do so - something as simple as examining and investigating these one hundred alleged child predators.
In June, Nate Lindstrom’s family and friends gathered outside the St. Norbert Abbey for a vigil - both to remember his life and to urge Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul to join other state attorneys general in opening a wide-scale investigation into clergy abuse in Wisconsin’s churches and schools. This request came with a letter to Kaul in which Nate’s family classified his death as the “direct result not only of the abuse he suffered as a child but with how his pleas for justice and help were repeatedly ignored and mishandled by the Norbertines and the Green Bay Diocese.”
The family decried the lack of access to civil courts for victims of child sexual abuse in Wisconsin, an option that could have offered financial restitution, mandated institutional reform, and provided Nate and others with evidence regarding the abuse and its coverup by the Norbertines and Green Bay Diocese. In the letter, they cited the thousands of pages of church documents from across the state that have never been reviewed by any Wisconsin law enforcement official.
Nate Lindstrom’s family never received a response from Attorney General Kaul. In the week preceding Nate’s death, representatives of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) met with Attorney General Kaul and Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm to discuss a statewide investigation including the unsealing of the church documents, similar to the ones concerning the offenders in Nate's case.
The silencing of Wisconsin victims by church officials has too often been met by the silence of local, state, and Federal law enforcement officials. Citizens of Wisconsin have not charged churches and other organizations with determining and managing child rape cases. That is the responsibility and duty of justice officials - this is what they were elected or appointed to do. A statewide investigation of institutional child abuse in Wisconsin is long overdue. It's too late for Nate to see justice. It's not too late for thousands of his fellow survivors.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)