MILWAUKEE – Four years before the Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan – now cardinal of New York – sought Vatican approval to move nearly $57 million in cemetery funds off the archdiocese’s books and into a special trust to help protect them “from any legal claim or liability.”
During his tenure in Milwaukee, Dolan also pleaded repeatedly with the Vatican to “laicize,” or defrock, sexually abusive priests, a process that often took years.
One case dragged on for five years, even though the priest was convicted and had sought his own dismissal. At one point a Vatican official told Dolan he could not turn the case over to Pope Benedict XVI without “an admission of guilt and a sincere expression of remorse.”
How Dolan – now considered one of the world’s most influential Catholic prelates – and his predecessors responded to the sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is laid out in thousands of pages of documents made public Monday as part of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy.
Included in the documents were letters showing that the archdiocese paid abusive priests – usually $20,000 – to accept laicization. Critics have characterized this as a payoff or bonus to abusers. However the church has described it as a charity payment intended to ease the priest’s transition into secular life.
It’s clear from the documents that the practice pre-dated Dolan; one payment was dated 1995, seven years before he arrived.
Dolan was unavailable for comment, but he said on his blog Monday that dioceses are required by canon law to care for priests while they are leaving the priesthood. He also denied that the transfer of cemetery funds was intended to shield money from the bankruptcy estate.
“While certain groups can be counted-upon to take certain statements or events out of context, the documents released show plainly that the bishops have been faithful to the promises made over a decade ago: permanent removal from ministry of any priest who abused a minor; complete cooperation with law enforcement officials; and, strict child-safety requirements,” he said.
The documents offer an unprecedented look at how what has become a global crisis in the Roman Catholic Church played out in southeastern Wisconsin.
Again and again, the records show how local bishops moved known sex offenders from one parish or school to the next without divulging their histories, effectively providing them new victims; how the church protected offender-priests from civil authorities; worried more about “scandal’ than the welfare of victims; and later paid some of the abusers to leave the priesthood without a fight.
Jeffrey Anderson, the Minnesota attorney who represents most of the 575 men and women who have filed sex abuse claims in the bankruptcy, called the release of the documents “a testament to the courage of the survivors and their will to make sure the children of the future are protected more than the children of the past.”
Correspondence between Milwaukee archbishops and the Vatican, he said, showed the church was concerned more about protecting reputations and church secrets and avoiding scandal and accountability, than with reaching out to victims.
“We see the extent of cowardice among the clerics at the top,” he said.
The advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests called Dolan’s statement that the transfer of cemetery funds would protect it from legal claims the “smoking gun” in one of the key battles in the archdiocese bankruptcy.
In that dispute, attorneys for the creditors have argued that the shifting of funds constitutes a “fraudulent transfer,” and that the money should be placed into the debtor’s estate for use in a settlement and reorganization plan.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee did not immediately return telephone and email inquiries for comment.
Most of the 6,000 pages released Monday are being seen publicly for the first time. They include depositions of one sexually abusive priest and of church officials who led the archdiocese’s handling of clergy sex abuse cases for more than 30 years: Dolan; his predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland; and Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba. Weakland and Sklba are now retired.
They also includewfenders accused in the bankruptcy: 42 of the 45 priests named on the archdiocese’s website as having substantiated allegations of sexually abusing at least one minor.
They include some of the archdiocese’s most prolific sex abusers. Among them: the late Father Lawrence Murphy, who is believed to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys, most during his decades at St. John School for the Deaf in St. Francis; and Sigfried Widera, who was facing 42 counts of child abuse in Wisconsin and California when he jumped to his death from a Mexico hotel room in 2003 as authorities closed in.
The records have been under seal as part of a broad protective order, issued by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan Kelley early in the bankruptcy. The archdiocese had fought the release for months, saying victims could inadvertently be identified. But it reversed course in April, shortly before a hearing at which Kelley was expected to unseal at least some of the documents.
The Milwaukee archdiocese has been in bankruptcy since January 2011, becoming the eighth Catholic diocese to file for Chapter 11 protection to minimize its liability in mounting sex abuse lawsuits. Under Chapter 11, a debtor and creditors negotiate a reorganization plan that would allow the debtor to compensate creditors — primarily sex abuse victims in these cases — and retain enough in the way of assets to continue to operate.
Victims believe the documents will prove the archdiocese defrauded them by knowingly moving abusive priests from one parish or school to the next without divulging their histories — the allegation underlying their claims to compensation.
The archdiocese denies the fraud allegations. But if it had defrauded victims, its lawyers have argued, the clock on the six-year statute of limitations started ticking by at least 2004 when it first posted the names of 43 abusive priests on its website.
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