Dolan Braces Archdiocese for Priest Sex Abuse Costs
Bankruptcy a Possibility As California Cases Move toward Trial
By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 6, 2006
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is going ahead with plans to sell the Cousins Center in St. Francis and has launched a major communications effort, partly to prepare its 700,000 Catholics for what might be "staggering financial consequences" as 10 lawsuits filed against it by victims of clergy sexual abuse move toward trials in California.
Katherine Freberg, an attorney representing eight of the victims, said Thursday that the archdiocese has expressed interest in seeking settlements while also indicating "there's a possibility they will file for bankruptcy."
"When we hear that from a defendant, we are very suspicious that a mediation would not be very fruitful," added Freberg, who noted that average settlements of clergy sexual abuse lawsuits in California "certainly are over $1 million."
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, who has acknowledged in the past that bankruptcy could be a last-resort option, did not rule it out in his Herald of Hope column and in his quotes in a news story devoted to sexual abuse issues in Thursday's Catholic Herald.
"The issue of going into bankruptcy would be extremely painful and would only come after extensive consultation with the advisory groups of the archdiocese, and as a last resort," Jerry Topczewski, Dolan's chief of staff, said Thursday in an interview. "The financial and operating tension that you live under is to do everything you can do to help the victim-survivors while continuing to fund the ministries and mission and of the church here in southeastern Wisconsin.
"Other dioceses have determined that the only way to do that is to declare bankruptcy. We hope we can find another way."
The Cousins Center, at 3501 S. Lake Drive, is a complex with 415,000 square feet of space on an approximately 44-acre site near Lake Michigan. It has been inefficient to operate and has not been fully used - reasons in addition to the pending lawsuits that the archdiocese considered selling it.
Tentative plans call for the archdiocesan central offices and the about 115 employees who work there to move from the Cousins Center to one or more existing buildings on the adjacent Saint Francis Seminary grounds at 3257 S. Lake Drive, by Sept. 1, 2007, Topczewski said. About 24 retired priests who live at the center, including retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland, have not been given a deadline to move but have received a list of recommended retirement centers in the Milwaukee area.
A decision earlier this year to shift academic training from the deficit-burdened seminary to one or more other institutions in the area will free up some space for the move, though some offices may go to other locations. Included in the move are two operations at the Cousins Center that are not part of the central offices - Catholic Charities and the Milwaukee Catholic Press Apostolate, which publishes the weekly Catholic Herald.
The archdiocese's Finance Council has recommended hiring a professional broker to sell the Cousins Center, and the process of selecting one will soon begin, Topczewski added.
Dolan aims to be upfront
Dolan said Thursday in his column and in an e-mail to priests and parish leaders that the first of 10 cases of abuse allegedly committed more than 30 years ago in California by two former Archdiocese of Milwaukee priests has been scheduled for trial Nov. 6.
In response, he says, he is following up on a promise to be upfront. That included taking the unusual step of mailing Thursday's Catholic Herald, which included a variety of information on the archdiocese's response to the sexual abuse crisis, to all 200,000 households of registered Catholics in the 10-county archdiocese.
Noting in his Herald of Hope column that "we sure need a lot of HOPE right now," Dolan tells people to expect more secular news coverage of a settlement and trial process that will have harmful effects. He cites "the valuable work and ministries of the archdiocese, which could be seriously curtailed if the resolution of these cases results in staggering financial consequences against us. What adds to the sadness of all this is that we had been making some steady progress."
Among other effects that Dolan cites are:
• "Victims/survivors, who have already suffered so much, will be hurt again . . . as past wounds are reopened."
• "The greater Catholic community of southeastern Wisconsin, all 700,000 of us, will be ashamed again, as the church is dragged through the mud, as we are reminded of indefensible, immoral behavior by unfaithful, preying priests over a quarter-century ago, and the failure of some church leadership to deal effectively with it back then."
• "Our virtuous priests, 97% of whom have always acted appropriately . . . will once again suffer because of the disproportionate publicity given to an offender."
Although Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions have made it virtually impossible to sue a diocese or church for failing to properly supervise an abusive priest, the California Supreme Court ruled that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee could be sued by victims in that state for essentially sending two known abusive priests there - the late Father Siegfried Widera, who jumped to his death in Mexico while fleeing authorities in 2003 and who is named by nine of the California plaintiffs; and Franklyn Becker, a former priest, who is named in one of the suits.
Survivors group responds
"Archbishop Timothy Dolan is reminding churchgoing Catholics here that they - and not he and his fellow Milwaukee bishops - will have to pay for the coverup that allowed Father Siegfried Widera to sexually assault and sodomize Catholic children in Wisconsin and California," said Peter Isely, Midwest representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Bishops around the country should have to make personal financial restitution and suffer other consequences for their handling of such cases, Isely added.
Some of the archdiocesan actions Dolan cites in his column include: a "massive education effort" among clergy, teachers, volunteers and parents; an independent mediation process for victims; implementation of "rigorous" protections of children drafted by the American bishops conference, including removal of any priest from ministry against whom there is a substantiated report of sexual abuse of a minor; and local spending of more than $11 million over the years, with most going to victims for help, compensation and counseling.
A lawsuit filed by the archdiocese against numerous insurance providers to get them to assume some financial responsibility in settlements and court judgments is pending.
Looking to the future, Dolan says the archdiocese has already sold most of its extra, unused property and is "scrupulous" in protecting pensions, the annual Catholic Stewardship Appeal, and other donations.
"But who knows what a court will do?" he says. "And the resources of the archdiocese are very limited."
Cousins Center Plans
The Cousins Center, 3501 S. Lake Drive in St. Francis, is a 415,000-square-foot complex that serves as archdiocesan central offices with 115 employees and is home to about 24 retired priests, including retired Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland. Tentative plans would move the archdiocesan facilities next door; the priests would be dislocated.
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