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Group alleges ministers at Madison church sexually abused them as children: 'I still don't sleep'

Clergy required to report child sexual abuse told in confession under bill
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Clergy required to report child sexual abuse told in confession under bill

MADISON, Wis. - A group of at least a dozen people is alleging that officials at a United Pentecostal church sexually abused them when they were children.

Debbie McNulty, who lives in Madison, said the abuse started when she was 11 years old in the early 1980s by men from Calvary Gospel Church, but it has taken her many years to come to terms with what happened.

"I still don't sleep," McNulty told News 3 Now after speaking at a news conference Wednesday in support of new bills aimed at helping child sexual abuse victims.

McNulty, who said she is hypervigilant and has post-traumatic stress disorder, created a blog in December 2017 to share her sexual abuse allegations. Since then, more than a dozen other people from the same church have shared abuse allegations with her.

One of those women was Rebecca Martin Byrd, who is also now in her 40s. She alleges a different man from the same church started abusing her when she was 12.

"I was told that if I told my story, people wouldn't come to church, and if they didn't come to church, they were going to burn in Hell, and that was my fault," Martin Byrd said. "So inherently, right away, you learn it's your fault."

Both women said they told a church pastor at the time of the abuse, but police were never notified. They have since met with Madison Police Chief Mike Koval.

McNulty said the man who raped her is still practicing at a church in Wisconsin, and Martin Byrd said the man who raped her is still at Calvary Gospel Church. Their abuse allegations were first reported in a story from The Capital Times.

John Seidl, executive pastor at Calvary Gospel Church, sent News 3 Now a statement saying:

"The Pastors and Elders of Calvary Gospel Church are aware of the allegations that have been made in relation to the proposed Capital Times story. We are reviewing those allegations. We will continue to cooperate with law enforcement officials as required. We obey and apply all Mandatory Reporting requirements defined by law in Wisconsin. 

"Currently at Calvary Gospel Church we have a Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) Policy and Procedure in place. All ministry personnel are required to affirm by signature their understanding and commitment concerning the CAP training. We require a background check for all staff, Ministry Leaders, and all of the people in Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, and Security. We have a check–in procedure for everyone that enters into our Children’s Ministry wing during the hours of operation of those ministries. Our Ushers, Greeters, and Security Team have been trained to be alert and report any activity that suggests a violation of any of the protective policies or procedures that we have implemented. 

"We have no further comment at this time."

McNulty and Martin Byrd both spoke at a news conference where Democratic lawmakers announced two new bills they said aim to give adult victims of child sexual abuse a new chance at justice.

One bill, the Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act, would expand mandatory reporting requirements for members of the clergy. They would be required to report all instances of child abuse to law enforcement, even if those allegations are made during confessional or a private setting.

The other proposal, the Child Victims Act, would get rid of the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases. Under current state law, children who were sexually assaulted have until age 35 to file civil action.

For three years after the bill passes, the proposal would also allow victims who were unable to bring charges under the previous statute of limitations to seek legal action.

"We know that people need time to come forward, time to process the trauma of what has happened to them," Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor said.

The proposals have support from the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Wisconsin Chapter of The National Association of Social Workers and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

But the bills face opposition from some faith-based groups. In previous sessions, Wisconsin Family Action and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference have opposed bills similar to the Child Victims Act. 

Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, and Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said they would consider supporting raising the age on the statute of limitations to file child sexual abuse civil cases. However, they said they do not support the three-year window that would allow victims to retroactively take legal action.

Appling said at the civil level, the proposal "goes after the institution, not the perpetrator" and churches could have drastically changed in the decades since allegations had happened.

It is also difficult to gain evidence and litigate decades-old cases, Vercauteren said.

Neither Appling nor Vercauteren had seen the language of the Clergy Mandatory Reporter Act. But Vercauteren said the Catholic Conference did have concerns the proposal could be "too overreaching."

The clergy-penitent relationship, similar to the attorney-client privilege, forbids judicial inquiry into certain communications between clergy and members of their congregation. Vercauteren said her organization is concerned the proposal could affect that relationship.

"We just want to make sure that is preserved," Vercauteren said.

Republican legislative leaders did not respond to our request for comment about the proposals.

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