Wisconsin Lawmakers Propose Legislation To Combat Sexual Abuse By Clergy

Aug 8, 2019

Democratic state lawmakers are pushing for new legislation to combat sexual abuse by clergy by changing the mandatory reporting law. They're also reintroducing a bill that would remove the statute of limitations for sexual assault that occurs during childhood.

Debbie McNulty is a childhood sexual assault survivor. She was standing in the Wisconsin Senate Parlor Wednesday with other survivors, as lawmakers unveiled a proposal to combat abuse by clergy.

"When I was 11 years old, a trusted adult from my church began to sexually abuse me. This went on for several years," she said, taking a deep breath before she began. "Eventually, I got up the courage to tell my pastor. He did nothing. He didn't report that a child in his church was being abused by an adult member. These crimes were not reported to the police and the man who abused me is now pastoring a church right here in Wisconsin."

Debbie McNulty is a childhood sexual assault survivor.
Credit Screenshot / WisconsinEye

Wisconsin law doesn't require clergy to report sexual abuse. McNulty says that's why her church was able to keep her abuse a secret.

"The church of my childhood was able to cover up many crimes and leave in its wake so many wounded children," she says.

Some Democratic lawmakers want to change the law.

"The suffering of children sexually abused in a religious setting must stop. It must stop," said State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

The Clergy Mandatory reporting bill would add clergy members to a list that requires people in 30 professions to report child sex abuse when discovered in the course of their professional duties. Mandating clergy to report sexual abuse is not the only change the lawmakers are hoping to implement.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, also spoke at the news conference. She outlined another part of the bill package: the Child Victims Act. It addresses the statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse of children.

State Sen. Lena Taylor argues there should be no statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse.
Credit Screenshot / WisconsinEye

"We know that there are so many reasons why victims do not come forward right away. A barrier to them seeking justice has included statutes of limitations. Statute of limitations ... on raping children?" stated Lena Taylor incredulously. 

In Wisconsin, victims of child sexual abuse have until age 35 to bring a civil case. Lena Taylor is proposing eliminating the age limit. She argues that there should be no statute of limitations. And Lena Taylor says she knows this personally — she's a survivor of child rape.

"I recall being in law school when I remembered.  I recall seeing myself literally looking down and remembering the experience the smell. But it took years. I was 27 years old," recalled Lena Taylor. 

Unlike the Clergy Mandatory Reporting Act, which has never been proposed here, the Child Victims Act has been introduced. But it failed to pass the Legislature multiple times.

WUWM reached out to Republican leaders to ask how the measures might fare in the current session. No one was available to comment by our deadline.

Editor's note: A portion of this audio is courtesy of WisconsinEye.