By Annysa Johnson

May 22, 2013 Milwauke Journal Sentinel - In its first public action Wednesday, a national network of Catholic clergy and nuns founded in part by a Milwaukee-area priest called on the church to take a stronger stand against child sexual abuse in its ranks.

Eight members of the Catholic Whistleblowers gathered for a news conference in New York, home to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is considered the most influential American prelate.

The group urged Dolan to use his influence to help oust Newark, N.J., Bishop John Myers, who has been in the news in recent weeks for allowing a pedophile priest continued access to minors, in violation of an agreement with prosecutors.

In addition, members called on Catholic bishops to:

 Support proposed legislation in New York, Wisconsin and elsewhere, that would lift statutes of limitations on sex crimes against children. (A Wisconsin bill, known as the Child Victims Act, is expected to be re-introduced this legislative session.)

 Adopt policies, similar to one in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, that protect priests, nuns and other church employees who report child sex abuse or cover-ups to civil authorities.

“The church has made strides; thousands of people have been trained in how to spot and report sex abuse. But all of that has to do with the future,” said the Rev. James Connell of Sheboygan, who has emerged in recent years as a vocal advocate for child sex abuse victims.

“But that doesn’t address the accountability, or the justice issues of the past,” he said. “Those issues are still at hand.”

A spokesman for Dolan said in an e-mail that the Archdiocese of New York has had a policy for years that encourages those with allegations of abuse to report them to civil authorities, and that here are no known abusers serving in the dioceses. He did not respond to questions about Myers or the statute-of-limitations legislation.

The group laid out its mission at a news conference at Cardozo Law School, which employs First Amendment scholar, Marci Hamilton, who has represented church victims in lawsuits across the country, including in Wisconsin.

Hamilton successfully argued the 2007 Wisconsin Supreme Court case that allows victims to sue religious entities under the state’s fraud statute — the basis of the 570-plus claims in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Bankruptcy. And she won a January ruling in the bankruptcy case that barred the archdiocese from using the First Amendment to keep up to $57 million in cemetery funds from being tapped for sex abuse settlements. That decision is on appeal to the U.S. District Court.

Connell is a founding member of the Whistleblowers, a group of like-minded mostly priests and nuns, brought together last year by the founders of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based non-profit that researches and posts information about the Catholic church’s response to sexual abuse.

Other members include well-known critics of the church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis, including Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who alerted U.S. Catholic Bishops to the coming crisis in the 1980s; and Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk and “fixer,” who was sent by his order to clean up after abusive priests, and now consults for victims in lawsuits around the country.