MILWAUKEE — A group of clergy sexual abuse victims called Tuesday for an independent commission to investigate molestation accusations that are sealed as part of a bankruptcy case involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The move comes a day after church lawyers formalized a $21 million settlement between nearly 400 abuse victims and the archdiocese. It advances a position the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has held for years: that church officials shouldn’t be the first authorities to review clergy abuse reports.
Many of the abuse allegations have been made public as part of the case, but SNAP says outside investigators should have access to all the complaints to ensure that there aren’t children who are still at risk.
Church officials, meanwhile, have maintained that claims have been properly and transparently investigated and that they’ve worked to make sure children are safe.
In the settlement filing, the church outlines the steps it has taken, including conducting annual outside audits, which have resulted in “exemplary reports from the independent auditors.” It also says that every report of clerical sexual abuse of a minor, provided the accused cleric is still alive, is handed over to prosecutors.
Peter Isely, Midwest director of SNAP, has acknowledged that many abuse survivors want to move on from the case and will accept the deal, even though it includes some of the smallest per-victim payments of any recent clergy abuse settlements.
His group stopped short of criticizing or splitting with those who reached the settlement agreement that would allow the cases to be sealed. However, Isely called for all of the case files to be opened for review.
“Now we’re at a crucial point,” he said, noting that Judge Susan Kelley set a November date to go over the church’s bankruptcy filing.
If Kelley approves the deal, it would resolve the case, which the church initiated to address its lawsuit liabilities in the sweeping clergy abuse crisis.
Mike Finnegan, who represents many of the abuse victims and helped negotiate the settlement, said “the more transparency around child sex abuse the better kids are going to be protected.”
He said, however, victims’ attorney had made all the progress they could in this legal process.
Jerry Topczewski, the archdiocese’s chief of staff, defended the church’s recent practices.
“During the five years of the bankruptcy, we worked closely with abuse survivor attorneys to provide full transparency and confidence in the steps the archdiocese has taken to ensure the safety of children in this community,” he said in a statement.
Topczewski said that by working together with victims’ attorneys, “we were able to reach a settlement agreement that will allow abuse survivors and the archdiocese to move forward.”
Isely said his group is considering how it might get the settlement adjusted before it goes to the judge for review.
Creditors’ committee chairman Charles Linneman said Isely’s plan isn’t on his panel’s agenda. The committee comprises five clergy abuse survivors. He said the committee has no power to open sealed court documents. The committee intends to endorse the proposed settlement.