La Crosse diocese’s policy on sex abuse cases criticized

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Milwaukee archdiocese’s Connell says vetting standard puts children at risk

 17 June 2010

 Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

 By Annysa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel 

The standard used to vet clergy sex abuse cases involving children in the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse appears to violate church law and may be putting young people at risk, a canon lawyer and high-ranking priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee said Thursday. 

Vice Chancellor James Connell, who serves on the Milwaukee archdiocese’s sex abuse review board, said La Crosse’s policy dictates a high burden of proof that may have caused the diocese to return abusive priests to ministry, and he called on church officials there to re-examine all cases in which it was used. 

Connell went public with his concerns in an open letter to Catholics on Thursday after three months of trying unsuccessfully to persuade state and national church officials, including Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, who last served in La Crosse, to change the standard. 

“Sometimes we’ve got to bring our problems to the Christian laity,” said Connell, who cited a canon law provision that allows, and at times requires, church officials to make public matters of importance to the church. 

The La Crosse diocese issued a statement Thursday calling Connell’s concerns unfounded and insisting no child in the diocese is at risk. 

Diane Knight, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board on clergy sex abuse issues, which also reviewed his allegations, said Connell raises “cause for concern,” but that her board did not have the authority to impose policy changes on a diocese. 

Listecki, in Florida for a retreat with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reiterated La Crosse’s assertion that children are safe there. But he said Auxiliary Bishop William Callahan would review the policies when he takes over as the La Crosse bishop in August. 

Standard of proof 

At issue is the standard of proof used by La Crosse’s Child Sexual Abuse Review Board in evaluating whether there is enough evidence to pursue a case against a priest or deacon. 

Vatican law requires that any case in which the allegations “at least seem true” or there is a “semblance of truth” must be forwarded to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

Connell likens that to the low “probable cause” standard required to pursue criminal charges in civil law. 

But the La Crosse diocese’s website lists the review board standard as “moral certitude,” a higher bar akin to the civil law’s “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which would make it more difficult for victims to prevail at the review board. 

Connell questions whether that high standard contributed to La Crosse’s high rate of siding with clergy over victims in such cases. A 2004 review by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that La Crosse exonerated clergy in 64% of cases between 1950 and 2002, compared with the national average of under 10%. 

In its statement Thursday, La Crosse said it has reviewed cases before the board but found none that was incorrectly decided, though it was unclear how far that review went. 

La Crosse said its review board uses a standard of “sufficiently confirmed,” and describes that as a lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It did not respond to a question asking why the procedures on the website list it as “moral certitude.” 

Connell said he came across the La Crosse provision while researching how that diocese handled sex abuse cases in advance of a meeting Listecki planned with the Milwaukee review board. 

“I wasn’t out looking for something,” he said. His concerns were heightened, he said, hearing from both Listecki and victims about La Crosse’s 64% rate of siding with priests. 

Father Tom Reese, senior fellow with the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said Connell raises serious issues, which, if true, “are in clear violation of church norms and should be revised.” In defense of La Crosse, however, he said, such change likely can only be made by a sitting bishop, and so would have to wait for Callahan. 

He called it shocking that the national audit process didn’t catch the discrepancy and said the conference should re-audit norms for review boards. 

“The fact that these norms were drawn up under (then-La Crosse) Bishop Raymond Burke, who is now the head of the Vatican Signatura, the highest court in the church, is also disturbing,” Reese said. “Archbishop Burke is known for taking positions not held by most canon lawyers.” 

Criticized and lauded 

Connell has been both criticized and lauded for his efforts. 

In a May letter to the National Review Board, La Crosse administrator Monsignor Richard Gilles called Connell’s statements “careless and insulting.” 

“They appeared to be of the nature which we have grown to expect from the irresponsible public utterances of SNAP,” Gilles said. 

But victims and advocates – some of whom had previously criticized Connell’s role on the Milwaukee review board – on Thursday called him courageous. 

“It took an incredible amount of courage for him to do that,” said John Pilmaier, co-director of the Wisconsin SNAP. 

Knight, of the National Review Board, called Connell’s actions a matter of conscience. 

“Father Jim is operating out of a genuine concern for children,” she said. 



johnckathy – Jun 17, 2010 11:09 PM 


What a courageous person. Thank you. 


Lloyd Christmas – Jun 18, 2010 12:08 AM


Is it too early to declare Archbishop Listecki a total and complete disaster? He’s responsible for the sinful LaCrosse policy and now he tries to pass off responsibility to Bishop Callahan, who won’t be sworn in for two months. WWJD Archbishop? Answer that question in your private thoughts and I pray you come to the correct conclusion.


deadcenter – Jun 18, 2010 12:24 AM


In cases regarding the Church, the JS has lost all credibility. As I read this article, it seems eye opening that the diocese sided with priests 64% of the time, but that means nothing, because we don’t know the number of priests accused. If it was 200, that’d be shocking. If it was 14, not as shocking. Because of the shotty reporting of the Fr. Murphy story (which was really just a recycled story) how can anybody trust this the truth value of this reporting?

“But the La Crosse diocese’s website lists the review board standard as “moral certitude,” a higher bar akin to the civil law’s “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which would make it more difficult for victims to prevail at the review board.”

Whose opinion is that? Connell’s? Or is that yours Annysa? Either way, the analogy is weak.

Annysa, we know you hate the Church, and most of all the conservative clergy (“Archbishop Burke is known for taking positions not held by most canon lawyers,” I’m still trying to figure out why that quote is in there about an orthodox, soon to be CARDINAL. Could it be that Fr. Reese and his friends may be the unorthodox canon lawyers?), so we get the point. Please find something else to report on. The horse has been dead for 15 years.


reader 22 – Jun 18, 2010 5:17 AM


Unlike Pope Benedict, it appears that Listecki and Burke are too proud to admit to, much less apologie for obvious problems that have their fingerprints all over them.


John Casper – Jun 18, 2010 5:28 AM


In comments regarding the Church, deadcenter has lost all credibility.

If you are going to insult a reporter, at least do not be a coward and hide behind a pseudonym.

I thought you might be an attorney on retainer with the Archdiocese, but these sentences

“If it was 200, that’d be shocking. If it was 14, not as shocking.”

made that impossible.

No attorney representing Arbp. Listecki would be dumb enough to write that. Ms. Johnson should thank you for writing it, because it crystalized . the questions her readers are asking. How many victims are out there? It goes to the heart of the institutional cover-up of child molestation and statutory rape.

dead, you are the one who hates the Roman Catholic Church and everything for which it stands. You do not want the hierarchy held accountable for child molesting, statutory rape, and the cover-ups which follow.

How low can you go?

Is accountability only for the laity?

The more you enable and encourage the cover-up, the less able the Church is able to deal with false accusations against good priests.

The Roman Catholic Church is arm-pit deep in highly qualified vocations. It, however, refuses to ordain about half, because it deems them the wrong gender.

This is Mark 1:30 “But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him of her.”

Until the 12th Century, celibacy was OPTIONAL. The Roman Catholic Church should return to that immediately.

Please apologize to Ms. Johnson and to Roman Catholics who are deeply ashamed of the criminal behavior of the hierarchy.


ginger snap – Jun 18, 2010 6:30 AM


The molesting priests, sick or evil or both, have paid their price: been defrocked or prosecuted. This courageous letter proves that the hierarchy who sheltered them, stonewalled, dragged their feet, and counter-sued victms as enemies are yet to be held accountable. I only hope the Church has a whistle-blower statute to protect Fr. Jim or he might be re-assigned to KP duty at a seminary.


historyfan – Jun 18, 2010 6:36 AM


The article on the LaCrosse Diocese’s policy does not surprise me. I taught school at one of the Catholic schools in the Diocese during the time Raymond Burke was bishop. In response to accusations of sex abuse by priests in other dioceses, the Diocese of LaCrosse wrote a policy that all teachers were required to sign. The policy basically stated that if we saw or suspected anyone of sexual harassment or abuse, we were to report the incident or concern to the Diocese. We were NOT to contact the local law enforcement agency. I did not want to sign and expressed my position to the principal. I was told that if I wanted a contract to continue teaching, I had to sign the agreements. I signed, but still stated my opposition and questioned the legality of the agreements. As teachers in a Catholic school, we only receive a contract to teach for one year. Each year, we receive/received a new contract. There is no such thing as tenure or job security.


johnckathy – Jun 18, 2010 7:03 AM


deadcenter is truly right of center. If it was one that they sided with wrongfully or without fully exploring the case that is sinful. 64%of whatever number is just not right.


letstrytobepolite – Jun 18, 2010 7:34 AM


historyfan wrote: “We were NOT to contact the local law enforcement agency.”

historyfan, you will have to prove that assertion to me. More important, I would ask that you provide that proof to the police.

John Casper, what has celibacy and female ordination have to do with this article?


John Casper – Jun 18, 2010 7:36 AM


lets, thanks for asking.

It has everything to do with this article.


letstrytobepolite – Jun 18, 2010 8:20 AM


John, I had hoped you would elaborate a bit.


lammyleap – Jun 18, 2010 8:27 AM

»Only in your mind Casper.

You talk about people losing credibility. If you blame celibacy for sick, criminal priests abusing boys, you’re the one who has lost credibility.

Stick to the real topic…..


Wfboy – Jun 18, 2010 8:38 AM

I never want to judge but I think Listecki is bad for Milwaukee. I love our
diocese & think he is a bad match.

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