Behind the story: Why we examined Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse in Wisconsin

Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

Wisconsin Watch managing editor Dee J. Hall and reporting intern Erica Jones fact-check the stories about abuse in the Catholic Church in Wisconsin on Sept. 27. The entire fact-check for the story took about 20 hours over a three-day time frame.

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The story of clergy sex abuse might seem like an old one. But in 2019, the decades-old scandal was back in the headlines.

That is because this year, Catholic dioceses and religious orders in Wisconsin began releasing names of credibly accused clergy — in some cases for the first time. Wisconsin Watch wanted to examine the Catholic Church’s efforts to alert parishioners and the public about child sexual abuse within the institution — and the efforts to prevent it.

We also sought to illuminate the legacy of trauma left behind. We reported on recommendations to better root out the abuse, and ways the church can mitigate the damage it has caused. 

The reports we released were a group effort. 

Reports in this series:

Bram Sable-Smith reports on this story for Wisconsin Public Radio

‘I was such a little kid’: As Wisconsin Catholic clergy accused of sexual abuse grows, the trauma lingers

Catholic clergy abuse survivor traces rocky path from abuse to action 

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People 

The lead reporter assigned to the story was Erica Jones, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student who was the Ann Devroy Fellow in the Department of Communication and Journalism. We invited Jones to spend the summer here in Madison to report the story, which she had begun working on as a student-journalist. 

As part of her reporting, Jones conducted hours-long interviews with three Catholic clergy sexual assault survivors. They recounted their abuse and the impact on their lives in often-wrenching terms. Jones also attended a “safe environment” training for Catholic clergy and lay people in Milwaukee.

Brent King / Director of Communications for the Diocese of Madison

Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow Bram Sable-Smith interviews Bishop Donald Hying in his office at the Diocese of Madison in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 23, 2019, for a WPR/Wisconsin Watch story about priest abuse in Wisconsin.

Bram Sable-Smith, embedded in our newsroom as Wisconsin Public Radio’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow, joined the reporting, creating an audio version of the story, which includes an interview with new Madison Bishop Donald Hying, as well as an extended audio version for the website. 

Alisa Ivanitskaya, a Russian journalist studying at the University of Arizona on a Fulbright scholarship, took photos, and recorded interviews with two survivors as part of her summer multimedia fellowship with Wisconsin Watch. 

Coburn Dukehart, our digital and multimedia director, produced photos, recorded an interview with a survivor, and did final editing on the audio interviews with all three survivors.

View Wisconsin Watch’s spreadsheet of clergy credibly accused of abuse in Wisconsin

This fall, Wisconsin Watch intern Francisco Velazquez, a UW-Madison student-journalist, joined the reporting team, reaching out to more than two dozen religious orders to determine whether any of their clergy had been credibly accused of abusing children in Wisconsin. 

Dee J. Hall / Wisconsin Watch

Wisconsin Watch reporter Francisco Velazquez helped compile the list of at least 170 Catholic clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse in Wisconsin.

With Velazquez’s help, we created a spreadsheet that grew to at least 170 names. We chose to include only the names of clergy who had been named by their own diocese or religious order, were the subject of publicly reported settlements by the Catholic Church, were criminally convicted of sexual crimes or whose publicly released personnel records revealed credible allegations.

Fact-checking the stories and spreadsheet took more than three days.

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There were many challenges as we reported the project. 

Victims of clergy sexual abuse, understandably, often do not want to be identified, and telling their stories requires sensitivity and patience. 

Two of the five dioceses — La Crosse and Superior — have not yet released their own lists of credibly accused clergy. And Superior officials did not respond to multiple messages seeking information. 

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Alisa Ivanitskaya, Wisconsin Watch’s multimedia fellow, recorded interviews with and produced photos of sexual abuse survivors as part of Wisconsin Watch’s package on clergy abuse. Ivanitskaya is a Fulbright fellow from Russia studying at the University of Arizona. She is seen here a Wisconsin Watch event on May 29.

Most of the 27 religious orders serving Catholic churches and schools that had not yet released names failed to return repeated emails and phone calls from Velazquez. 

That is why we reported that the number of clergy credibly accused in Wisconsin is likely to grow. The full story is yet to be told. 

We hope that this report deepens the public’s understanding of priest sexual abuse in Wisconsin and serves to hold church officials accountable.

To report Catholic clergy abuse

Here are the “safe environment” contacts for Wisconsin’s five Catholic dioceses for individuals who have been abused by clergy within that diocese. 

Green Bay
Justine Lodl, 920-272-8213, 

La Crosse
Teresa Brown, 608-791-2679

Anna Delaney, 608-821-3133,, Cheryl Splinter, 608-821-3162 

Jessica Brandt, 414-758-2232 

Kathy Drinkwine, 715-394-0216,, Shayla French, 715-394-0225

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