April 28 (UPI) -- The Wisconsin Department of Justice has launched an investigation into reports of sexual abuse by clergy and faith leaders in the state, Attorney General Josh Kaul said.
Surrounded by clergy abuse survivors and advocates, the state's Democratic attorney general announced the probe during a press conference Tuesday. Kaul encouraged victims as well as family and friends who have information concerning abuses committed by the church to come forward.
"We are conducting this review to get greater accountability and to promote healing for victims, and we're conducting this review to improve the response to abuse and hopefully to prevent future cases of abuse," Kaul said.
The attorney general's office explained in a statement that the statewide investigation will be an independent review of the sexual abuse claims and will not be limited by when they occurred.
Kaul told the public that the Department of Justice will gather information on reports of abuse as well as attempts to cover up alleged criminal acts through a toll-free phone line and an online reporting tool. The investigation will include reviewing documents produced by dioceses and religious orders in Wisconsin.
"I want to stress that we strongly encourage anyone who knows anything to report," he said. "No detail is too small. If you've reported before, we would like you to contact us. If you haven't reported before, we would like for you to contact us. And if you know about abuse involving someone who can't report, we want to encourage you to report that abuse."
The investigation will begin with a review of the dioceses of the Catholic church but Kaul said that his office is seeking claims concerning leaders of any faith or institution.
"This is an opportunity for us to bring transparency and accountability to a wrong that hasn't been addressed for far, far too long and it's my hope that the diocese and religious orders will work with us," he said.
Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, a non-profit group of Catholics seeking to raise awareness of clergy abuse, urged other Catholics during the press conference to welcome the investigation and to face whatever it might reveal.
"It is true that the process and results of this investigation are likely to be painful for anyone who loves the church. I understand the temptation to wish that this would all just go away so we don't have to think about these horrible stories any longer," she said. "But the reality is abuse in our church is not a problem of the past."
Several of the state's dioceses responded separately to the announcement, stating the church takes issues of clergy sexual abuse seriously and has put in place several prevention and accountability measures since 2002, when abuses in Boston were widely covered.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to the archbishop of Milwaukee, said the church has taken action to prevent such abuse and that he worries the investigation will negatively affect abuse survivors because of the publicity it will attract.
"There is no evidence that the church as a whole and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee hasn't already taken all possible steps in addressing issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse," Topczewski said in a statement. "We also do not understand the legal basis for the inquiry. We also question why only the Catholic church is being singled out for this type of review when sexual abuse is a societal issue."
The church understands it has made mistakes but it has since become "a model of how this issue is addressed," Topczewski said, adding that the diocese will review Kaul's requests for documents and information when it is received.
Nate's Mission, a Wisconsin-based project against clergy abuse, responded to the dioceses' statements, saying if the church is so confident it hasn't committed any crimes, then it should "be eager" to provide the attorney general with the documents his office has requested.
"The fact that they have not made any public commitment to do so raises serious questions," the organization said in a statement.
Asked during the press conference why the Department of Justice was launching the investigation now, Kaul said, "because it's the right thing to do."