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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (ChurchMilitant) - A Wisconsin priest and Wisconsin-based sex abuse victims' group is calling on the state's attorney general to provide more information in relation to an open records request for communications between the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) and Catholic dioceses and religious orders.
In a video statement released by Nate's Mission on Tuesday, Fr. James Connell addressed a recent DOJ update he found unsatisfactory.
"What came off the page to me right away looking through that document was the information he was not addressing," Connell commented. "It is not about what he did say."
Connell was referring to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who has been in office since 2019.
Nate's Mission describes itself as "a survivor-led movement that seeks the full recognition of victims, accountability for offenders and those who enabled them, and reconciliation through truth-telling that transforms and strengthens the public good."
Father Connell is a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese, a canon lawyer and former vice chancellor. He does not currently have faculties for and is suspended from offering the sacrament of confession.
In the video statement, Connell stated, "I don't want the attorney general to get off the hook. He promised he would do something two years ago, and that created hope — a lot of hope. Not just hope for the victim-survivors of clergy abuse, but hope for the people of the state in general."
Two years ago, Attorney General Kaul invited people to speak confidentially to his department regarding cover-up in sexual abuse matters involving children.
"Nothing in this new report talks about that, you know, whatsoever," Connell observed.
When the investigation began, Kaul also stated the DOJ would obtain documents from the Catholic dioceses and other faith groups.
And again, nothing is in this update about those documents that they got. What type of information did the Church provide — if anything? Did it cooperate with the effort or not? If they did not cooperate fully — and I would say partial cooperation is not full cooperation, then we need to know, well, what did they do, what were you looking for and where did they renege?
Connell surmised, "In the absence of their cooperation — if that's what we find out happened — then all the more this is just cover-up."
He concluded, "I would also say in my heart, if that's what it turns out to demonstrate, then the Department of Justice is cooperating with the cover-up the Church has been doing all these years."
Connell filed an open records request on April 27. He asked for "[a]ll correspondence from the DOJ to Catholic Church Leaders in Wisconsin and from Catholic Church Leaders in Wisconsin to the DOJ from April 27, 2021 to the current day."
Connell asked that the correspondence include "letters, emails, personal notes, and minutes of meetings and telephone conversations," and that the leaders include "bishops, priests, deacons, lay employees and volunteers, and outside attorneys, as well as the major superiors of Catholic men and women religious orders operating within Wisconsin."
To date, the DOJ has not responded to Connell's request.
In March, the Milwaukee archdiocese removed Connell's faculties to offer the sacrament of confession. In a statement, Abp. Jerome Listecki explained Connell "has publicly advocated for the removal of the legal protection of the confessional seal, suggesting there are situations where it is permissible to violate it."
"I have informed Father James Connell that effective immediately he is to cease all such erroneous communications that distort the teachings of the Church about the confessional seal," Listecki added. "I have also immediately removed the canonical faculties of Father Connell to validly celebrate the Sacrament of Confession and to offer absolution."
In response to the bishop's directive, Connell told the local daily newspaper, "I will not keep quiet. I will not be silent. This is all too important."
"It's about Jesus Christ, it's about truth and justice, it's about doing things the right way. And the church has it wrong when it protects all that secrecy," he added.
Connell reasoned, "If you're not confessing something, abusing and neglecting kids, what do [you] got to worry about? Let's remove the obstacle of confidentiality so that police and law enforcement can do their jobs."
The archdiocese's vicar for clergy, Fr. Nathan Reesman, responded, "Any implication by Nate's Mission that the decision to remove Fr. Connell's permission to hear confessions conveys a lack of commitment by the Church to protect against abuse is false and misleading."
"The issue at stake is the correct understanding of the seal of confession," he added.
Church Militant reached out to Nate's Mission for comment but received no response as of press time.