Wisconsin Governor-Flynn

Matt Flynn announces his gubernatorial bid in Madison last October. 

Upon the news that Matt Flynn was running for the Democratic nomination for governor, a state GOP spokesperson said, “Matt Flynn has sought to cover-up the crimes committed against those who are most vulnerable.”

Even as some progressive donors line up behind the 71-year-old former Wisconsin Democratic Party chair, the GOP accusation is, if anything, an understatement.

If Flynn were to win the nomination, GOP attacks on this front would be a daily occurrence.

While an attorney for Quarles and Brady — the tony law firm that counts the Archdiocese of Milwaukee among its most important clients — Flynn became lead defender in the sex-abuse case with the nation’s fourth-largest number of alleged victims.

For years, people with direct knowledge of the case have claimed Flynn threatened and tormented victims of known pedophile priests in order to silence them. He’s also been accused of protecting priests who abused hundreds of children. 

Just before the victims filed suit, the archdiocese transferred $57 million in assets to an archdiocesan cemetery fund.

All of these actions, victims contend, were to limit the money available to compensate survivors.

We emailed a list of questions to Flynn’s campaign; while we obtained confirmation the questions were received, they remained unanswered as of press time.

Ultimately, about 575 victims — there were many others who did not participate in the civil suit against the archdiocese or were denied standing based on a statute of limitations — received a total of $21 million to divide. (Full disclosure: WiG CEO and president Leonard Sobczak was one of the remunerated survivors.)

The average payout to victims nationally has been about $300,000. The Wisconsin payout per victim ranged from $2,000 to $30,000 after legal fees. Lawyers representing the two sides split a total of $32 million.


‘Appalling choice’

Peter Isely is a survivor of childhood clerical rape who has worked with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an international organization of clerical abuse survivors. For more than two decades he’s successfully sought to find and expose the truth about the archdiocese’s handling of the abuse crisis.

Isely was shocked when Flynn announced his bid for governor. “It’s really kind of an appalling choice for someone who wants to represent the citizens of Wisconsin, including families and children,” he said.

“Flynn had a scorched-earth policy: Go after the victim any way you can. He’d accuse them of lying even when he had an admission of guilt from the priest. He’d try to suggest that another member of the victim’s family did it.”

That’s exactly what happened to the woman identified in court papers as “Susan Smith.”

Susan said she was raped by a priest at age 8 but did not recall the experience for many years. That’s not unusual for children who suffer sexual abuse. The memory isn’t lost, but the brain is often unable to retrieve it for years due to the severity of the trauma.

In her case, Susan recalled the memory when she accidentally ran into her abuser, Fr. William Effinger, whom she later discovered had been charged with sexually assaulting many other girls.

Susan sought guidance from the church and was told, “We need to never speak of this again.”

Susan filed a civil case which, along with dozens of other victim cases, eventually had to be dropped due to a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that no church entity or religious body can be sued for negligence in the state because it violates the First Amendment’s right to free speech. It is the only such legal bar to victims in the United States.

Flynn argued the case before the court on behalf of the archdiocese. 

“Matt Flynn was absolutely brutal to me,” Susan said. He told Susan’s mother she was lying, destroying their relationship, she said. Her mother finally believed her after the release of documents in 2014.

Flynn told Susan she was raped by her father or her brother and was confused. He said Effinger had never been accused before, though in 2014, she discovered that he was a known serial rapist of children.

Susan said Flynn subjected her to daylong depositions for around two weeks. Then her father was deposed in a videotaped session. 

Soon, she discovered that everyone she knew was being deposed. “If I spoke to someone on the street, somehow Flynn found out about it and deposed them.”

Flynn deposed a friend who was recovering in a nursing home and sent interrogatories to her 8-year-old daughter. 

She finally stopped calling or speaking to people to protect them, she said.

“He is a heartless, egotistical, dangerous man,” Susan said. “He didn’t care what damage he was doing to me at all. And now he says he did all he could for the victims. He has no moral compass at all. He should never be a governor.”

After having to drop her civil case, when Susan went to buy a home, she discovered there was a $14,000 lien against her filed by Flynn. Even though her case never went to court, the archdiocese had filed the lien for legal fees without even contacting her, she said. 

The same thing was done to others whose cases did not go forward due to the statute of limitations.

“I was raped twice,” she said. “First by Effinger and then by the church.”


Flynn as ‘fixer’

Twenty-six years after his first political campaign, Flynn ran in the 2004 Democratic congressional primary for the 4th District. It was his fourth bid for public office, and his fourth loss — that year to Gwen Moore.

During his campaign, Milwaukee’s clerical abuse scandal was becoming known internationally. Frequently dogged about his role in the story, Flynn shrugged off accusations that he overstepped ethical boundaries in going after victims and hiding the church’s massive cover-up efforts.

Flynn had a standard reply to people who questioned whether he was “too aggressive” in his role as archdiocesan attorney. He would say — and still says — he simply did his job in providing the best defense possible for his client — the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

But now he’s running in the crowded Democratic primary for governor, and he’s stacking up a list of major donors, as well as endorsements from officials. Victims of abuse by Milwaukee priests and the bureaucracy that covered up their crimes and helped them duck accountability say he’s unfit morally for the job.

In 2014, the church released depositions and case files containing information that shed new light on Flynn’s involvement in the case — information suggesting he played the role of archdiocesan “fixer.”

Former archbishop Rembert Weakland summed up Flynn’s role when he said, under oath, that he turned everything over to the attorney to manage.

That’s recorded in a deposition in which Weakland was asked how he handled an abusive Capuchin priest for whom the archdiocese was held responsible.

Weakland answered: “I accepted whatever the lawyer told me was going to happen. That’s all I know.”

Also under oath, Weakland said Flynn was responsible for maintaining and managing the full list of priests who’d been accused of assault. More than 170 clerics have been publicly alleged to have assaulted children in the archdiocese over the past several decades, according to court records.

Other documents contain equally damning revelations. It appears Flynn was empowered by the archdiocese to approve or thwart investigations of abuse.

Even a cursory review of documents confirms that Flynn not only actively covered up crimes against children, but also ordered others to do so, even against objections by some church officials. In one instance, Flynn refused to authorize an investigation of reports that a known offender, Fr. Joseph Collova, was bringing children to his rectory bedroom. Flynn later relented on the investigation but set constraints: No one from the parish was to be contacted, and neither police nor child protective services were to be notified.

A 2012 deposition by a psychologist hired by the archdiocese to review hundreds of victim reports shows that she strongly disapproved of an archdiocesan internal policy that any abuse reported to law enforcement had to be approved first by Flynn. Records show this included Fr. Lawrence Murphy, who sexually abused 200 deaf children. The children complained to officials for years, but no action was taken to stop Murphy.

The Murphy story is the subject of a 2012 documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney.


Cutting checks

Weakland eventually was removed as archbishop over a $400,000 secret payment the archdiocese made to quiet a male who had sexual relations with him. He was replaced as archbishop by Timothy Dolan, who continued to empower Flynn in his role as fixer.

When priests became too problematic for Dolan, Flynn paid them to disappear. But Flynn failed following up to notify authorities in offenders’ new locations about the danger in their midst. Offenders were free to work in new jobs that put them in close contact with minors.

That’s what happened with Fr. James Arimond. His was a rare case because Arimond actually was convicted under state law of assaulting a 13-year-old. But Milwaukee District Attorney Mike McCann, a Roman Catholic with apparently close ties to the archdiocese, only charged Arimond with a fourth-degree misdemeanor.

Still, that was better than other cases, in which sources say McCann declined to bring charges, even when presented with hard evidence. 

Flynn asked Arimond to disappear and presented him with a $25,000 check drawn on a Quarles & Brady account. Arimond took the check and announced that he was leaving the priesthood to become a counselor for children.

Apparently, no one associated with either the archdiocese or the district attorney’s office tried to intervene with that plan. Several years later, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel religion writer Marie Rohde discovered that Arimond had indeed become a licensed therapist.

But the paper never printed a series of stories she was writing on the scandal, and she was removed from the religion beat. 



“For over 15 years, in the Milwaukee archdiocese, Flynn was the legal muscle and enforcer to intimidate victims, keep priest predators from justice, and protect the reputation and power of the church,” Isely said. “For that work, he was paid very well from charitable contributions to the church.”

Susan told WiG that she’s perplexed by recent cases involving other pedophile perpetrators and their enablers — perps  such as Jerry Sandusky and Dr. Larry Nassar. Unlike them, the men who tormented her successfully hid behind their priestly robes, positions of authority and three-piece suits.

Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach who raped and molested numerous young teenage boys, will spend the rest of his life in jail. So will Nassar, who molested dozens of girls while serving as the USA Gymnastics national team doctor.

Penn State launched a years-long investigation that resulted in action, including the firing of beloved football coach Joe Paterno.

Michigan State University’s investigation of Nassar resulted in the firing of Dean William Stampel. Michigan State’s president and athletic director quit.

In comparison, Susan said, no one in the hierarchy of the Milwaukee Archdiocese “has gone down.”

In her mind, that includes Flynn.


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