Archdiocese in the Red
Catholic Church Was Banking on Failed Sale of Cousins Center
By Tom Heinen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 30, 2008
[Includes links to previous articles, an archive of coverage, and the Milwaukee archdiocese website.]
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is facing a $3 million deficit in its current budget and will need to make substantial cuts in staffing and services for the fiscal year that begins July 1, partly because a deal to sell the Cousins Center fell through, an archdiocesan spokesman said Wednesday.
Money from that sale was to have been used to pay off a loan the archdiocese incurred to cover about $4.6 million of its $8.25 million portion of a nearly $17 million settlement of 10 sexual abuse lawsuits in California in 2006. Depending on the sale price, more than half of the money would be used for that, with the remainder available for other needs.
Archdiocesan officials have not identified who the expected buyer was. However, hedge fund operator Stark Investments had been interested in buying the property and announced last week it was buying other land instead.
The Cousins Center, 3501 S. Lake Drive in St. Francis, and its approximately 44-acre site near Lake Michigan are still on the market. In addition to paying ongoing operating costs at the center, plus the expense of having some of its offices moved to other facilities, the archdiocese also is making payments of about $30,000 per month on the loan, said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.
Dolan and other archdiocesan officials shared that and more information this month with priests, parish and school leaders in a series of state-of-the-archdiocese meetings.
In a related matter, Dolan wrote to priests, employees and volunteer leaders at parishes and schools this week to prepare them for more fallout from the clergy sexual abuse scandal because additional court documents were being released in California on one case, and because sexual abuse lawsuits filed by seven people against the archdiocese were moving ahead in Milwaukee County courts as a result of a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision last year.
His letter and other information also have been posted at the archdiocese's Web site, www.archmil.org, as part of Dolan's effort to share information with the region's 675,000 Catholics.
When the California lawsuits were settled, it appeared that the archdiocese had avoided bankruptcy. But the Wisconsin suits may lead to reconsideration of that because, except for the Cousins Center, the archdiocese has sold most of its property and does not have reserves, Topczewski said.
"At some point, if we have judgments and we are unable to have the assets to cover them, that (bankruptcy) is going to be one option that's looked at," Topczewski said.
In addition, a bill is pending in the state Legislature that would create a limited time period in which any victims of childhood sexual abuse by clergy could file civil suits against denominations no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. Dolan has said passage of the bill also would raise the possibility of bankruptcy, Topczewski said.
Fund raising separate
Topczewski stressed that the archdiocese's ongoing $105 million Faith in Our Future capital campaign would not be used to balance the budget or to pay sexual abuse costs. It is intended to fund new programs and endowments at the archdiocesan and parish levels, and its funds will be held in a charitable trust outside the assets of the archdiocese.
"There is an awful lot of good the archdiocese does in this community, and we want to continue to be able to provide these services," said Mark Doll, senior vice president of investments for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and chairman of the Archdiocesan Finance Council, which advises Dolan.
"We know that the next couple of years are going to be a challenge for us financially. . . . We want to do everything we can to avoid" bankruptcy.
The California cases are in the spotlight again because more than 800 pages of church documents relating to former priest Franklyn Becker, who was restricted from active ministry in 2002 and removed from the priesthood in 2004, were released this week to plaintiffs' attorneys as part of the settlement of those cases. Becker served briefly in the Diocese of San Diego in the late 1970s.
The letter to Catholics that Dolan posted online refers to three men with histories of abuse - Becker, 70; the late Siegfried Widera; and former priest Bruce MacArthur, 84. Dolan singled out Becker, who served in eight parishes and two hospitals in southeastern Wisconsin, for special comment.
"Although there could be various explanations for all the decisions that were made or not made, at the end of the day, you will see, I have to admit, these decisions are a particularly ugly example of how the Church made some dreadful mistakes in its handling of these cases," Dolan wrote. "The reports about this ex-priest (Becker) are very troubling."
Later in the letter, Dolan says, "So what do we do next? Do we hide in the corner while the scab of this mess is once again picked open? No! . . . The mistakes of the past do not change the needs of our people today. . . . Nor do these things diminish the good work that has been done over the past years as the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has ardently worked with victims/survivors and the wider community to bring healing and resolution."
Adults who were abused as children by clergy decades ago had not been able to sue denominations in Wisconsin since a series of state Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1990s made that virtually impossible. But the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled last July that three men who were childhood victims of Widera and one who was a victim of Becker could still sue the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for fraud because the priests' known history of abuse was covered up as the men were moved from parish to parish.
Since then, three women who say MacArthur sexually abused them as girls while he was chaplain at the old St. Joseph's Hospital in Beaver Dam have filed lawsuits here against the Milwaukee Archdiocese and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D.
The Cousins Center sale has been a key part of the archdiocese's financial strategy in dealing with the effects of clergy abuse.
"We had a deal that was virtually complete but fell through kind of at the 11th hour," said Topczewski, adding that other potential buyers have expressed some interest. "I don't know if we're back at square one, but we're maybe back at square two."
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