(Journal Sentinel) In what’s being touted as a first-of-its-kind voluntary airing of a Catholic religious order’s culpability in the church’s sexual abuse crisis, a branch of the Capuchin Franciscans on Tuesday issued an independent auditrecounting its own history of sexual abuse of young people and coverups that spanned decades.
The audit was commissioned last June by the 10-state St. Joseph Province of the Capuchin Order, which has several ministries in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. It lists 23 current, former and deceased friars with confirmed allegations of sexual abuse of minors, many of them occurring in Wisconsin, and suggested the true number could be higher, but documentation was lacking.
Echoing many of the complaints about the broader church’s handling of the global sex abuse crisis, it says that, dating back to the 1930s, the Capuchins:
¦ Moved offenders from position to position without divulging their histories, or sent them to treatment then back into ministry, where they would re-offend.
¦ Rarely reported allegations to civil authorities, even after they were required by law.
¦ Routinely placed concerns for their accused friars and their organization over those of victims.
¦ Spent vastly more on lawyers than on compensating or caring for victims.
¦ May have lost or destroyed documents.
¦ Often re-victimized survivors, especially those who sued the order or sought compensation, transparency or other forms of accountability; in one case, the order’s attorney threatened to publicly divulge a victim’s sexual orientation if he sued.
In announcing the audit Tuesday, Capuchin Provincial Minister Father John Celichowski said the order failed victims, their families and the broader church in its handling of sexual abuse allegations over the years. He called the audit, which acknowledged improvements made by the Capuchins in recent years, one step in a continuing process of reform aimed at regaining that lost trust — a process that he said could take years.
“Justice, as you know, is rooted in the truth. And the audit can help better understand the truth of what happened,” Celichowski said in a conference call with reporters that included auditors hired by the order. “We can’t change the past, but we can change how we respond to what’s happened,” he said.
Auditor Father Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer, who first warned the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops of the coming crisis in the 1980s, called the Capuchin audit unprecedented, saying no other religious order or diocese had allowed such unfettered access to its records — and no other order has publicly identified a list of offenders — without being forced by the courts.
“I hope this report and process will lead other dioceses and orders to have the courage and Christian decency to do the same thing,” he said.
Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who was sexually abused as a teenager by the late Father Gale Leifeld at the Capuchins’ St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary, called the audit “a good start” and a “long-overdue validation for victims of the Capuchins, many of whom continue to live in shame and silence.”
He said, however, that it falls short in key areas, including a lack of victims’ voices; the failure in most cases to name the supervisors who covered up the abuse; and the absence of certain documents, which led auditors to conclude that they may have been lost or destroyed by the order.
Copies of some Capuchin documents obtained by victims in past lawsuits were provided by plaintiffs’ attorneys, and were not found in the Capuchin archives, according to Isely.
“Where are those records? Either they don’t have them, or they failed to turn them over to auditors. Either answer is disconcerting and serious,” Isely said.
Doyle disputed Isely’s characterization, saying the number of missing documents was miniscule. “The implication here is that the Capuchins were holding back, and that’s just not true,” he said.
Modeled after St. Francis
The Detroit-based Capuchins, with about 174 members today, are among several Catholic orders that model themselves after the life of St. Francis, professing a care for the poor and marginalized, and stewardship of the environment and creation. In Milwaukee, they operate local parishes, including St. Benedict the Moor and St. Francis of Assisi; House of Peace; the St. Ben’s Community Meal Program; and supportive housing for formerly homeless residents.
Many of the incidents of abuse occurred at St. Lawrence — a sordid history first reported by The Milwaukee Journal in December 1992. It is considered one of the most troubling chapters in the history of the order. One Capuchin historian has called the day the story broke “Black Friday.” The order first acknowledged those abuses in a 1993 report. The new audit draws heavily on that document, but notes that it underestimated the number of victims and abusers at the high school seminary.
In all, according to the audit, 28 boys — double the number in the original report — were abused or subjected to inappropriate sexual behavior by eight friars at St. Lawrence dating back to 1964.
Legal fees incurred by the Capuchins in response to the allegations illustrated the order’s aggressive approach to defending itself over compensation or care for victims, the audit said.
Of the $962,026 spent by its insurers, $855,449, or 88.9%, went to legal fees, and $106,578, or 11.1%, was spent on settlements for victims, it said. The vast majority of settlements ranged from $2,000 to $4,000; one was a little more than $50,000 and another a little less than $20,000.
The audit includes detailed case studies of three of the most egregious offenders, Brother Thomas Gardipee, the late Father Jude Hahn and Leifeld — all of whom sexually abused boys at St. Lawrence or a parish in Mount Calvary. In most cases, the audit does not name the parishes or ministries where the incidents occurred, or other places where the offenders had served, omissions that are likely to draw the criticism of victims.
The audit touches briefly on the disputed role of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese in sex abuse cases involving sexual abuse by religious order clergy. In that case, it notes that former Archbishop Rembert Weakland was told about allegations involving Leifeld but took no action.
The archdiocese, which has filed for U.S. bankruptcy protection as a result of sex abuse claims against it, argues that it is not responsible for the actions of religious order priests. Victims and the auditors disagree, noting that the archbishop must grant permission for religious order clergy, including friars, to minister publicly in his geographic area.
The archdiocese’s own list of diocesan priest-offenders, posted on its website at www.archmil.org since 2004, has been used by the archdiocese in an effort to throw out hundreds of claims it argues are beyond the statute of limitations for fraud.
Under Wisconsin law, the clock on fraud allegations begins ticking when a person has reason to believe he may have been defrauded by the actions of another. The archdiocese argues that the publication of its list of offenders’ names, coupled with the thousands of media accounts of the sex abuse crisis, should have caused sex abuse victims to suspect they were defrauded as early as 2004.