Wis. Senate candidate urges openness from diocese
By DINESH RAMDE | Associated Press Writer
MILWAUKEE - U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson called Wednesday for the Green Bay Diocese to be more open about its investigation of alleged pedophile priests, although the activist group that urged him to make the statement said it didn't go far enough.
Johnson previously served on the diocese's finance council. In January, while in that role, he testified before the Wisconsin Legislature, arguing that a proposed bill for victims of child abuse could have harmful -- if unintended -- consequences. [see video below]
His call for transparency from the diocese came a few hours the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said it would hold an afternoon news s conference asking that he issue such a demand
Johnson's campaign released a statement in which the Republican candidate called on diocese officials to "provide the utmost transparency," saying it would help answer any lingering questions from child-abuse victims and others.
SNAP spokesman Peter Isely said he approved of Johnson's sentiment but said Johnson should also have told the diocese to stop blocking the release of the names of other clergy members accused of abuse.
SNAP's request of Johnson, a Republican challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, came in connection with ongoing legal action. A civil lawsuit from a sexual-abuse victim accuses the diocese of keeping secret the indiscretions of a known pedophile priest, quietly transferring him to other parishes to avoid scandal.
The priest was John Patrick Feeney, now 83, who has since been defrocked. He was convicted in 2004 of sexually assaulting two brothers who were 14 and 12 and is serving a 15-year prison term.
An attorney for the plaintiff is asking the diocese to release additional documents that list other clergy members who sexually abused children, but the diocese has resisted such efforts. Its attorneys say the documents contain confidential material such as the names of other victims who want to remain anonymous.
The defense also accused the plaintiff's attorney of seeking the information only "to ascertain whether he can turn any alleged victims into clients to generate additional litigation."
It wasn't clear whether Johnson's statement would change things. When asked whether the diocese would do anything different in light of Johnson's call for transparency, Deacon Ray DuBois declined to say.
His organization doesn't comment on statements from political candidates, he said, even if Johnson once served on its financial council.
"I'm not going to respond, other than to say we're fully cooperating with any proceedings under way," DuBois said.
Johnson, a Lutheran, sat on the diocese's financial council when he argued against a state bill that would have made it easier for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers.
The Child Victims Act, which was defeated, would have erased the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits against child sex abusers. That could have led to a flood of lawsuits against a number of Wisconsin churches.
Opponents of the bill, including Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said such lawsuits could drain resources from charitable causes and could drive dioceses under.
Johnson agreed. He told a panel the bill could create "economic havoc" for countless private organizations that serve children.
"I believe it is a valid question to ask whether the employer of a perpetrator should also be severely damaged, or possibly destroyed, in our legitimate desire for justice," he said at the time.
He defended those comments Wednesday, saying they shouldn't be interpreted as sympathetic toward child abusers. He said his concern was simply to warn legislators that the bill as written left open the possibility of unintended consequences against private organizations.
John Kraus, a Feingold campaign spokesman, dismissed that explanation, saying Johnson's true motive was to defeat the legislation outright.
"People deserve a senator who is going to fight for victims of abuse, not lobby against them," Kraus said. "If he won't stand with children who are victims of abuse, voters can't trust him to fight for them."
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