By Laurie Goodstein (New York Times)
July 1, 2013
Files released by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Monday reveal that in 2007, Cardinal Timothy F. Dolan, then the archbishop there, requested permission from the Vatican to move nearly $57 million into a cemetery trust fund to protect the assets from victims of clergy sexual abuse who were demanding compensation.
Cardinal Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, has emphatically denied seeking to shield church funds as the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009. He reiterated in a statement Monday that these were “old and discredited attacks.”
However, the files contain a 2007 letter to the Vatican in which he explains that by transferring the assets, “I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.” The Vatican approved the request in five weeks, the files show.
The release of more than 6,000 pages of documents on Monday was hailed by victims and their advocates as a vindication and a historic step toward transparency and accountability. They were well aware that the archives would bring unusually intense scrutiny to the country’s most high-profile prelate, Cardinal Dolan, who as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the archbishop of New York has sought to help the church turn the corner on the era of scandal.
Cardinal Dolan has been regarded by many Catholics as part of the solution. In public appearances, he has expressed personal outrage at the harm done to children, apologized profusely and pledged to help the church and the victims heal.
But the documents lift the curtain on his role as a workaday church functionary concerned with safeguarding assets, persuading abusive priests to leave voluntarily in exchange for continued stipends and benefits, and complying with Rome’s sluggish canonical procedures for dismissing uncooperative priests who he had long concluded were remorseless and a serious risk to children. In one case, the Vatican took five years to remove a convicted sex offender from the priesthood.
“As victims organize and become more public, the potential for true scandal is very real,” he wrote in such a request in 2003 to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican office charged with handling abuse cases until he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Victims on Monday called for a federal investigation into the actions of Cardinal Dolan and his predecessors, but the cardinal sought to deflect criticism by saying in a statement Monday that he welcomed the release of the documents.
The current archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome E. Listecki, had announced his decision to release the documents in April, one day before a judicial hearing. Lawyers for abuse victims had asked a judge to compel their release.
Archbishop Listecki released a letter last week warning Catholics in his archdiocese that the documents could shake their faith, and trying to explain the actions of church leaders while offering apologies to victims.
“Prepare to be shocked,” he wrote. “There are some graphic descriptions about the behavior of some of these priest offenders.”
The files include documents from the personnel files of 42 clergy offenders with “substantiated” allegations, going back 80 years. (The names and identifying features of victims were redacted.) Also included are the legal depositions of Cardinal Dolan and another former Milwaukee archbishop, Rembert Weakland, and a retired auxiliary bishop, Richard J. Sklba.
Milwaukee harbored some of the nation’s most notorious priest pedophiles, including the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, whom a church therapist assessed as having molested as many as 200 boys during his two and a half decades teaching and leading St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., and Sigfried Widera, who faced 42 counts of child abuse in Wisconsin and California. Father Murphy died in 1998, and Father Widera committed suicide in Mexico in 2003.
In his letter, Archbishop Listecki said the documents showed that 22 priests were “reassigned to parish work after concerns about their behavior were known to the archdiocese,” and that 8 of those “reoffended after being reassigned.”
Advocates for abuse victims objected that the archdiocese did not release the files of many others accused of abuse, including priests, deacons, nuns, schoolteachers and choir directors. The files do not include any known priest offenders who were members of religious orders (like the Capuchins or Jesuits) who served in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
“It’s still less than a complete disclosure, but it’s a giant step in the right direction,” said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer for many of the alleged victims. The documents were posted on both his Web site and the archdiocese’s, but they were arranged differently to buttress each argument.
Cardinal Dolan was deposed about his handling of abuse cases and the assets of the archdiocese in February, just before he left for Rome for the conclave to elect a new pope. The release of the documents is the byproduct of a bitter standoff in bankruptcy court between the Milwaukee Archdiocese and 575 men and women who have filed claims against it alleging that priests or other church employees had sexually abused them.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, saying it was the best way to compensate the victims and resolve the controversy. It became the eighth Catholic diocese in the United States to do so. Since then, negotiations between the two sides in Milwaukee have broken down: the church has argued that about 400 of the 575 cases are invalid, while lawyers for the victims have accused the church of hiding assets.
In January, the archdiocese said it had spent about $9 million in legal and other fees in the bankruptcy process and was going broke.
In 2007, the year Cardinal Dolan asked to transfer the funds, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision that in effect lifted an unusual law that had long shielded the church from sexual abuse lawsuits. When he was later accused of trying to shield church funds, Cardinal Dolan said on his blog in New York that it was “malarkey” and “groundless gossip.” Archbishop Listecki and former Auxiliary Bishop Sklba invoked a theme that many other church officials have used in the past to explain their conduct: that their missteps reflected a broader lack of awareness about child sexual abuse in society.
Archbishop Listecki wrote that he did not want to make excuses, but that church officials had relied on the advice of doctors and therapists who were “seemingly more concerned about ‘Father’ than about the children.” He said the documents would reveal “the progression and evolution of thinking on this topic.”
However, the Rev. James Connell, a priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese who helped to form a group called Catholic Whistleblowers, said in an interview that he did not find this claim credible.
“I was in high school in the 1950s,” he said, “and I learned about statutory rape in high school. An adult having sexual activity with a minor is a crime. We knew about it then, so you can’t claim that social thought changed.”