Decades in, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is still reckoning with its priest abuse scandal.
On this big day, Archbishop Jerome Listecki, the highest-ranking Catholic official in southeastern Wisconsin, looked small in front of a battery of TV cameras, tripods and shivering reporters. March 22 was all about symbolism for the normally guarded Listecki, who had steered the Archdiocese of Milwaukee head-first into a long bankruptcy with single-minded drive. He said he’d been here long enough, almost a decade, to feel confident in renaming two diocesan buildings, stripping from them the names of two of his predecessors, household names now unwelcome.
Workers had already removed the letters of the Cousins Center, revealing the smooth slab of stone behind Listecki. A temporary sign now blessed it (prior to Listecki’s blessing) the Mother Mary of the Church Pastoral Center. Downtown, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist would rename its Weakland Center and remove a bas-relief, covered in a dark patina of irony, of former Archbishop Rembert Weakland shepherding a group of Milwaukee children.
Both the cerebral, bearded Weakland and his mentor, Archbishop William E. Cousins, were high patriarchs of the town at a time when pews were fuller and parishes richer. Both came under fire for mishandling reports of sexual assault of children, an issue that exploded into national scandal in the early 2000s, when an adult male Marquette theology student accused Weakland, now 92, of “date rape” on national TV.
“We are looking to restore trust,” said Listecki, dressed in white vestments, a bishop’s reddish-purple skull cap and (later) an overcoat, “and that’s a long process.” Indeed, his public statements on abuse have taken on a consistently penitent tone in recent months. “I apologize to those who have been hurt by these priest-perpetrators,” he wrote in March, “and by the Church’s inability to adequately respond.”
But behind closed doors, he’s still the archbishop who fought his way through the longest church bankruptcy in American history, according to PBS, objecting to all 570 or so claims filed by victims. A warm and animated bishop at fish fries, the former Army Reserve chaplain with a law degree can be steely and argumentative as well.
“He has a public persona and a private persona,” says Patty Marchant, a Milwaukee therapist and priest abuse survivor who has been involved in reform.
Publicly, he keeps an ear open to victims and laypeople. In private, it doesn’t always work out that way, and while the archdiocese has already made a raft of changes, Listecki (who wasn’t available for an interview) seems detached from the conversation.
At an October listening session, fervent Catholic Sara Larson, who writes a blog about the clergy abuse crisis, flagged down the archbishop as he was leaving and asked to meet with him. After he agreed, she organized her ideas and excitedly met with him in January.
Larson, a former parish employee and Bay View resident who says she has strong “nice girl” tendencies, is a one-woman experiment testing if it’s possible to work cooperatively with church leaders on reform while remaining independent of the archdiocese’s lay advisory committees, which are invite-only and relatively small. In contrast, the most prominent local voice for reform is confrontational: the fiery and frequently quoted Peter Isely, an abuse survivor and Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Larson showed up to the meeting prepared, but her ideas weren’t of much use. According to her blog, “In Spirit and Truth,” (inspiritandtruthblog.com) the meeting went poorly, and she returned home too upset to write. “I wanted to come home from the meeting and tell you all that we had a really productive conversation,” she eventually wrote, “that I felt respected and heard, that I am hopeful about the way forward. Instead, I left disappointed, frustrated and discouraged.” She described Listecki as defensive and as putting up a wall between them. “I didn’t hear anything that made me feel hopeful about healing in our archdiocese,” she wrote.
After the meeting, on which Larson has declined to comment further, she felt like quitting her monthslong project of researching the crisis and meeting with as many survivors and Catholics as possible.
As with some other young parishioners, the shocking abuse scandal surrounding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a powerful former bishop from New Jersey who was defrocked in February, caught her off-guard. How could such a man evade accountability for decades in a church that had already undergone so many reforms and made so many “never again” promises?
“So many of us were not paying attention,” she said in an interview.
According to Jerry Topczewski – who was present at her meeting with Listecki as the archbishop’s chief of staff – Larson asked Listecki at one point in the meeting, “What are we going to do?” in response to a massive grand jury investigation of all Pennsylvania dioceses that was completed in 2018. “Tell me what you want,” Listecki said. “That’s not happening here. That’s in Pennsylvania.” (No such years-long civil investigation has been conducted in Wisconsin, though some have advocated for one.)
Larson has come to the conclusion that some Catholics need to talk about the problems in order to heal. In response, she’s organized at least two discussion groups for them to share their thoughts and experiences at a local home, with more to come. Meanwhile, she’s made further inroads into the archdiocese, meeting with auxiliary bishops Jeffrey Haines and James Schuerman, Listecki’s two deputies, plus his staff.
Still, the push for groups is leading somewhere, although Topczewski says the archdiocese’s own effort predated Larson’s. The church body has offered to train parish-level discussion leaders using a book about the abuse crisis, The Wounded Body of Christ, that can be used to lead small discussions.
Involving survivors themselves can be delicate, and a notification mailed out in the early 2010s as part of the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 proceedings resulted in a number of angry calls. Listecki promised in a March 19 letter to meet with any survivor who wants to. But by mid-May only one – a parish employee – had reached out, and that meeting hadn’t happened yet.
In the minds of people like Topczewski and Listecki, much reform has already taken place. “The Church may have been an example of how not to do things,” Topczewski said, “but it now has become an example of how best to respond to this issue.”
To work with children in any capacity within a Catholic organization, one has to go through a three-day “Safe Environment” training, the guidelines for which forbid any adult from being alone with a child. Also forbidden is meeting with a child in a closed-off room, so local churches have installed a large number of new glass doors and panels. A council called the Diocesan Review Board, headed by former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, reviews any report of abuse and recommends to the archbishop whether to forward the offender for possible removal from the priesthood. (Listecki has never gone against a recommendation.) Parishes are instructed to call the police when an allegation comes up, and no priest with a “substantiated” claim of abuse can serve in the archdiocese.
One person who served on a previous incarnation of the Review Board, which includes church and lay leaders, described it as a “very positive experience.” The person requested anonymity to speak freely.
Listecki’s views on the clergy abuse crisis have been partially discussed in his blog and “Love One Another” letters to local Catholics. As recently as 2013, he wrote that “church leaders and other professionals tried their best to deal with the issue given the knowledge available at the time,” part of the semi-notorious “arc of understanding” blog criticized in a New York Times editorial. Listecki was theorizing, the paper said, “as if the statutory rapes of children were not always a glaring crime in the eyes of society as well as the church itself.”
Only in more recent times, Listecki wrote, had understanding fully arced, and society recognized the real harm caused by child sexual assault and called for criminal charges and not just psychological intervention for the offenders to hopefully forestall future abuse.
In a recent interview, Topczewski repeated a similar argument, emphasizing that in past decades, the impact of this abuse was not as well understood. In 2002, the year of the Church’s “Dallas Accord” on sexual abuse, “we learned to call someone else,” he said, meaning the police.
In April, Listecki conducted the annual Mass of Atonement at a church in Bay View, where he briefly touched on the abuse crisis. Larson was invited by someone else in the archdiocese to read Bible verses as a lector and found parts of the experience jarring. “After spending months reading about clerical sexual abuse, sometimes in graphic detail, horrible images now rush into my mind whenever I enter a church,” she later wrote. “It’s a sad reality. … Walking into a Catholic church has always felt like coming home.”
Eleven men have led Milwaukee’s Catholics since the diocese was created in 1844. It became an archdiocese in 1875.