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Diocese of La Crosse still defying Eau Claire Police Chief

November 11, 2011

November 11, 2011

Diocese of La Crosse still defying Eau Claire Police Chief

Year after Archbishop Listecki assured lawmakers, still no change in La Crosse sex crimes reporting policy

Statement by Peter Isely, SNAP Midwest Director

CONTACT: 414.429.7259

Instructing Catholics that their bishop should be the first person at a clergy child rape crime scene is still the official policy of the diocese of La Crosse. Not the unofficial, secret policy. The official one. And this, a year after Milwaukee archbishop Jerome Listecki promised Wisconsin lawmakers under oath this was not the case.

The issue came up in interviews with television station WEAU last night discussing the recent Penn State sex abuse scandal with Eau Claire police chief Jerome Matisyk and longtime attorney for the diocese of La Crosse, James Birnbaum. Eau Claire is the largest city in the diocese.

For chief Matisyk, who has been trying for years to get the diocese to change its child sex abuse reporting policy, things are pretty clear: “I think the lesson for all citizens is that child sexual abuse is a crime, a serious crime and it needs to be reported to the police, not to the organization where the crime occurred. The problem is with some organizations, if some people in a higher position find out about this they tend to try to cover up evidence, tend to try and tell people not to cooperate and that’s destructive to the truth. Nothing is worth the price of a new victim”.

Not so for the Catholic Church, according to Birnbaum. When child rape concerns a priest, victims and witnesses are not to go to the police first, but to the bishop. What’s the guarantee that the bishop will do the right thing, when the historical evidence is so overwhelmingly to the contrary? According to Birnbaum, because the bishop is “obligated by law” or can be “sued.”

Birnbaum knows this is false on both counts.

The Wisconsin sex abuse reporting statute provides a very clear exemption, in practice, for bishops, clergy and others who don’t report child abuse. Why this special exemption for clergy and for no other occupation—teachers, social workers, even massage therapists—who are all mandated reporters? Because years ago, when clergy were added to the list of professionals that must report the rape of a child, the powerful Catholic Conference successfully lobbied for the exemption and lawmakers caved in.

Here is how the exception reads, which literally enshrines secrecy and cover up for church officials. From Wis. Stat. sec. 49.981(2) (bm) (3):

“[A] member of the clergy is not required to report child abuse information . . . that he or she receives solely through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting if he or she is authorized to hear or is accustomed to hearing such communications and, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion, has a duty or is expected to keep those communications secret. Those disciplines, tenets, or traditions need not be in writing.”

In other words, if this were the case with Penn State officials and employees, no one would have been arrested.

So what about “being sued” for not reporting clergy sex abuse, even if it can be proven that there were more victims as a result? Again, Wisconsin law makes a special exception for bishops and church officials, who cannot be sued for negligence in sex abuse cases. Wisconsin is the only state in the country which provides this special civil immunity. Yes, bishops and church organizations can be sued for fraud, but that is a much more difficult and daunting legal undertaking then the usual negligence provided in 49 other states, and Birnbaum knows it.

In January of 2010, Listecki testified to the Wisconsin Senate Judiciary Committee that there was no reason to reform this state’s child sex abuse statutes and laws because he and his fellow bishops report child sex crimes to the police. Hearing this, in February of 2010, Matisyk wrote a letter to Wisconsin state Senator Jon Erpenbach stating that this was not the policy of the diocese of La Crosse. Listecki answered Matisyk by stating to the committee that “If you take a look at the statement [not reporting to law enforcement], that’s not something that is happening now”. Matisyk’s reply at the time: “It is clear that archbishop Listecki’s response was untruthful,” and that Listecki seemed “more interested in protecting the organization than he is in protecting children”.

Matisyk was right and he still is. Because what Listecki claimed to lawmakers last year is not true. And it still isn’t.

And this is where the analogy between the cover up of child sex crimes at Penn State and the ones in the Catholic Church end. At Penn State, unlike the Catholic Church, especially if you are a Cardinal or a bishop, if you cover up child sex crimes, you may actually get arrested or fired for it.

SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We’ve been around for 23 years and have more than 10,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is


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