MILWAUKEE (AP) -- A group of clergy sexual abuse victims called Tuesday for an independent commission to investigate molestation accusations sealed in a bankruptcy case involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The move comes a day after church lawyers formalized a $21 million settlement between nearly 400 abuse victims and the archdiocese. It advances a position the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has held for years: that church officials shouldn't be the first authorities to review clergy abuse reports.
The victims' group fears the settlement would expose only some of the abuse allegations, but church officials have firmly maintained that claims have been properly and transparently investigated and that they've worked to make sure children are safe.
In the settlement filing, the church outlines the steps it has taken, including conducting annual outside audits, which have resulted in "exemplary reports from the independent auditors." It also says that every report of clerical sexual abuse of a minor, provided the accused cleric is still alive, is handed over to prosecutors.
The settlement shows that some of the accusations and associated narratives have been reviewed by victims' lawyers and published on the archdiocese website in accordance with a 2013 court ruling.
Peter Isely, Midwest director of SNAP, has acknowledged that many abuse survivors want to move on from the case and will accept the deal, even if it includes some of the smallest per-victim payments of any recent clergy abuse settlements. His group stopped short of criticizing or splitting with those who reached the settlement agreement that would allow the cases to be sealed.
However, Isely called for all of the case files to be opened for review to ensure that there aren't children who are still at risk.
"Now we're at a crucial point," Isely said, noting that Judge Susan Kelley set a November date to go over the church's bankruptcy filing.
If Kelley approves the deal it would resolve the case, which the church initiated to address its lawsuit liabilities in the sweeping clergy abuse crisis.
Mike Finnegan, who represents many of the abuse victims and helped negotiate the settlement, said "the more transparency around child sex abuse the better kids are going to be protected."
His law firm, however, approved the settlement, acknowledging they've made all the progress they could in this legal process.
Jerry Topczewski, the archdiocese's chief of staff, defended the church's recent practices.
"During the five years of the bankruptcy, we worked closely with abuse survivor attorneys to provide full transparency and confidence in the steps the archdiocese has taken to ensure the safety of children in this community," he said in a statement.
Topczewski said that by working together with victims' attorneys, "we were able to reach a settlement agreement that will allow abuse survivors and the archdiocese to move forward."