Archdiocese to Release Information About Defrocked Priest to Police

JSOnline: The Archdiocese of Milwaukee said Thursday it will allow a Fond du Lac police detective to review the file of a defrocked priest as part of an ongoing sex-abuse investigation there, in response to a motion filed the same day by sex-abuse victims in its bankruptcy case.

That motion accuses the archdiocese of using the bankruptcy’s broad protective order, which is intended to shield victims, to withhold information about the former priest, Jerome Wagner, from a Fond du Lac detective in December.

It asks U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley to make public all records, depositions and other sealed documents involving credibly accused priests and church workers, saying the move is needed to protect children.

Archdiocese spokesman Jerry Topczewski said Friday that it has a long-standing policy of cooperating with civil authorities investigating clergy abuse, and it blamed the lapse on an internal breakdown of communication.

He and archdiocese attorney Frank LoCoco said they first learned about the refusal with the filing of the motion and accused the victims’ attorneys of exploiting an isolated error in an attempt to get Kelley to revisit the protective order.

“No one wants to obstruct a lawful investigation,” said LoCoco. “And to date, we’ve had no other complaints from law enforcement.”

The archdiocese asked victims attorneys Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, who represent more than half of the now 574 sex abuse claimants in the bankruptcy, to withdraw the motion, now that access to the file will be provided.

“Not a chance,” said Anderson. “There’s a public and moral imperative to be answered here. And the only way is to release this information to the survivors and the public.”

Fond du Lac police are investigating allegations that Wagner molested a minor between 1997 and 2001, while he served at St. Patrick’s parish there. Wagner was restricted from ministry in 2002 and later defrocked, and he appears on the archdiocese’s list of credibly accused diocesan priests.

Fond du Lac Detective Jeff Harbridge contacted the archdiocese in November asking for information about Wagner and was told by victims advocate Sister Susan Rosenbach and Deacon David Zimprich, a former police detective who has worked on clergy sex abuse cases for years, that the documents were under seal as part of the bankruptcy, according to court records.

Kelley ruled in April that that the documents would remain under seal, saying they include scandalous material — a justification for sealing under the bankruptcy code — and a partial release could inadvertently identify victims. But the order provides an exemption for releasing information to law enforcement agencies.

“That’s basic,” said Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who suggested the denial has more to do with protecting church authorities who might be named in the file. SNAP has asked the Wisconsin attorney general’s office to investigate.

Anderson, who has advocated for the release of church documents in lawsuits and bankruptcies around the country, says claims in the Milwaukee bankruptcy identify more than 100 accused offenders, 75 of them priests, who have not been publicly named by the archdiocese. Their identities remain under seal as part of the protective order, creating what victims have alleged is a public safety crisis — an accusation Kelley has roundly rejected.

Topczewski said the majority of those priests belong to religious orders, over which the archdiocese has no authority. Victims argue that the archdiocese bears responsibility because it grants the faculties required for a priest to function in its geographic area.