As a member of the finance council for the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay until he resigned to run for Senate this year, Ron Johnson served alongside a bishop named Robert Morneau who, as a Church leader, had been made aware over two decades ago of the abusive tendencies of Rev. John Feeney.
Rev. Feeney was convicted in 2003, before Johnson joined the council, for sexually assaulting two brothers in the late 1970s. But according to documents obtained by the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the Church sought to cover up his crimes, which one reverend called “sexually very inappropriate.”
Seven years later, Johnson testified before the Wisconsin State Senate against legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for such crimes, making it easier for victims of sexual abuse to seek damages from the Church or any other culpable institution.
The testimony first arose in the context of the race in a June article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and has been dogging Johnson more or less ever since. His connection to Morneau raises questions about how familiar Johnson (who is not a Catholic) was with the diocese’s hidden scandals. Those questions couldn’t come at a worse time for the GOP hopeful, who leads Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in the polls ahead of the November election.
TPM contacted numerous attorneys, advocates, and other members of the finance council of the Diocese of Green Bay to explain the finance council’s role at the church, and the information it was privy to with respect to sexually abusive clergy. What we learned suggests that it’s very difficult to separate Johnson’s role as finance committee member from his role as legislative witness seeking to protect the Church from future lawsuits, when he told the panel, “I urge you to defeat this legislation.”
Johnson insisted at the time that he testified as an active member of the business and non-profit community — not specifically, and most pressingly, as a representative of the Catholic Church. But the road he took to testifying at the Madison statehouse in January of this year belies that contention.
Deacon Tim Reilly, Director of Administration for the Diocese of Green Bay told TPM that the Church played a significant role in getting Johnson to the state capital. According to Reilly, the Church didn’t support the legislation and wanted to raise public awareness of its objections. So the diocese arranged for a meeting with Randy Hopper, the state senator in the Oshkosh area who sits on the panel that was deciding whether this legislation would go to the floor for a vote. Some 20 people met at St. Rafael’s Parish in Oshkosh, several of whom spoke — including Johnson. His arguments were among the most articulate and persuasive to the group, so Hopper asked him to go to Madison and testify — the sort of not-quite-lobbying that happens in Washington and in state capitals around the country all the time.
Reilly reiterated to TPM that Johnson was not speaking specifically on behalf of the church. “He was speaking on his own behalf, as a concerned citizen, that this would adversely affect the Catholic School System and the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA and other non-profits without government protection.”
That beggars belief, according to experts and clergymen.
“He can’t be testifying just as a concerned citizen,” says Father Tom Doyle, a priest who presciently warned the Catholic Church about the looming sex abuse scandal years ago. “If he was a member of the finance council of the diocese, the senator picked him out not because he was concerned about the Boys and Girls Club…. I don’t know of any instance where a layperson, on his own, without any connection with the Church administration has come forward to testify.”
Doyle admonished that, though many finance councils around the country are intimately familiar with diocesan secrets (both good and bad), they are in some instances left in the dark by their bishops. He has no direct knowledge of what the finance council knew in Johnson’s case.
After learning of Johnson’s testimony in news reports a former Johnson supporter named Todd Merryfield — one of Feeney’s victims — appeared on MSNBC to announce that he’d renounced his support for the Tea Party-backed candidate.
For Merryfield and others who advocate on behalf of abuse victims, legislation extending the statute of limitations in child abuse cases was and remains a key legislative goal, and Johnson’s successful attempt to kill it is a nearly unpardonable sin. But in addition to seeking penance from Johnson, and calling on him to press the Church to release information about priest abuse, they want to know what he knew when he testified in January.
“We don’t know exactly what he knew,” Merryfield told TPM in a phone interview. “It just seemed a little strange that he was in a position of knowledge being on the finance council, having to sign the checks to everyone being paid.”
The issue has taken on greater salience as Johnson’s lead over Feingold has grown. But for victims, the question of whether Johnson was acting as a dispassionate citizen and member of the business community, or as an agent of the Church, is the most crucial.
“These pedophiles that they have hidden away, they pay their room and board, living costs,” Merryfield said, speculating that Johnson “has to know who they are because he has to write the checks to somebody.”
According to Peter Isely, SNAP’s Midwest Director, “It’s something of a mystery what this finance council does,” though, he says, it’s one of the most important positions in the diocese.
Jim Stang, an attorney for official committees of abuse survivors in six Catholic affiliated bankruptcy cases, told TPM that these finance committees — mandated at every diocese in the country — are well-positioned to know about the skeletons in the Church’s closets. When a case is settled, for instance, it would be in the financial interest of the Church, and therefore the council, to know of any other potential victims, and therefore lawsuits.
“It would certainly be in the area of finance committee’s appropriate inquiry to ask,” Stang said.
Ultimately, though, Stang said it should come as no surprise that Johnson’s testimony so closely mirrored the Church’s position.
“I think you’d have to live in some kind of plastic bubble to not make the association between statute of limitations reform and the financial impact on the diocese,” Stang said. “It’s certainly the argument the Church has been making for years.”
According to the 2004 John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Diocese of Green Bay received 59 allegations of sexual abuse by 35 diocesan priests during the 52 year period of the inquiry, 1950-2002.
Furthermore, the diocese is currently involved in two lawsuits, which, according to Reilly, is just the sort of potential liability the Church would bring to the attention of the council. “I also would say we have two lawsuits going on and depending on how they’re settled, depending on whether the judge rules in our favor and how the jury rules, this is the potential financial risk that might be out there in the future,” Reilly said. “In the case of the two litigations that we’re involved in right now, I feel very strongly that we are on the correct side of the truth, but I said to the council, I need to make everybody aware that there are two lawsuits coming on so it’s not a surprise. Nobody likes surprises.”
In the past several days, Johnson has claimed in statements to reporters in Wisconsin that he never argued the legislation should fail — only that he cautioned against some of its provisions. “I sought to warn legislators of those consequences in order to correct legislative language so that any bills that passed would punish the perpetrators,” he insisted. In fact he urged state senators to vote down the legislation, claiming that, among other things, it would benefit trial attorneys and do more harm than good to children left in the lurch when organizations get sued and go under.
Now, under attack, he is demanding full transparency from the Diocese of Green Bay.
“I call upon the Green Bay Diocese to provide the utmost transparency in order to answer any lingering questions or doubt among victims of child abuse and those who seek to prevent child abuse in the future,” Johnson said.
The Johnson campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.