Cardinal Timothy Dolan Sought to Protect Money from Claims, Struggled with Vatican T
By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 2, 2013
|Archbishop Timothy Dolan, seen in this 2009 file photo, listens as the Apostolic letter is read by the Vatican's ambassador to the United States during his installation Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.|
Four years before the Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan sought Vatican approval to move nearly $57 million in cemetery funds off the archdiocese's books and into a trust to help protect them "from any legal claim or liability," according to documents made public Monday.
In the decades before Dolan — now cardinal of New York — arrived in 2002, church leaders, including now-retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland, routinely moved pedophile priests from one parish or school to the next, shielding them from criminal charges, the records show.
And when they did try to dismiss sex abusers from the priesthood, Dolan and Weakland were met by a Vatican bureaucracy that moved at a glacial pace, causing the process to slog on sometimes for years.
One case, involving the now-defrocked Father John O'Brien, dragged on for five years, even though O'Brien was convicted of fourth-degree sexual assault of a teenage boy and had sought his own dismissal. At one point a Vatican official wrote to Dolan saying he could not turn the case over to Pope Benedict XVI for a final decision 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 proceedings.
They offer, at times in disturbing detail, an unprecedented look at how the Catholic Church's global sex abuse crisis played out in the parishes, schools and other ministries in southeastern Wisconsin. Some of the information has previously been reported, including revelations that Milwaukee bishops, like their colleagues around the country, routinely moved priests without divulging that they were a danger to children.
But the vast majority of the 6,000 pages of documents are being seen for the first time. They include parts of priests' personnel files; correspondence between the Milwaukee archdiocese and the Vatican; and depositions of Dolan, Weakland and other church officials, and one notorious sex offender, since defrocked.
"The revelations are shameful and shocking," said Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who represents most of the 575 men and women who filed claims in the bankruptcy alleging they were sexually abused by priests, nuns, teachers and others associated with the Milwaukee archdiocese.
Anderson accused local bishops, including Dolan, of worrying more about the church's reputation than the care of victims, and of perpetuating a culture of secrecy that has been seen in dioceses around the country for decades.
They "deny, minimize, blame," Anderson said.
Dolan issued a statement saying he welcomed the release of his deposition. He derided allegations that he shifted money into the cemetery trust to shield it in case of a bankruptcy filing and paid abusive priests to quietly go away as "old and discredited attacks."
According to the documents, Dolan paid $20,000 to abusive priests who agreed not to fight their dismissal from the priesthood. But records show the practice dated to at least 1995, seven years before he arrived in Milwaukee.
Critics have characterized the payments as payoffs or bonuses to sex abusers. But Dolan said in his statement Monday that canon law requires dioceses to provide "basic support like health care and room and board" for priests until they have moved on.
"Responding to victim-survivors, taking action against priest-abusers, and working to implement policies to protect children, were some of the most difficult, challenging, and moving events of the 6½ years that I served as Archbishop of Milwaukee," Dolan said in the statement.
Officials with the Milwaukee archdiocese did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment. But Archbishop Jerome Listecki issued a letter to Catholics last week, saying he hoped the documents would "aid abuse survivors, families, and others in understanding the past, reviewing the present and allowing the Church in southeastern Wisconsin to continue moving forward."
The archdiocese maintains there are no priests with substantiated allegations of sex abuse currently in ministry.
Files on 42 priests
Monday's cache includes files on 42 of the 45 diocesan priests who appear on the archdiocese's website as dismissed or restricted from ministry because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of at least one minor. The list first appeared in 2004 with 43 names.
The archdiocese's list includes some of its most notorious 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.
Documents detail numerous sex acts with minors, and at least one involving an animal; millions of dollars paid in settlements with victims and their families; and priests who solicited victims in the confessional, considered among the gravest of church crimes.
In one case, while visiting a family in Waukesha County, a drunken Father Daniel Budzynski, who has since been defrocked, made sexual advances toward a 13-year-old boy and his 18-year-old brother while their parents slept.
Others were accused of assaulting their victims inside their churches.
When bishops in some cases did try to dismiss problem priests, documents show, the Vatican was slow to respond.
As archbishop, Dolan sent multiple letters to the Vatican asking it to defrock Father John C. Wagner, who had numerous allegations of abuse going back to the 1980s, including rape and inappropriately touching the genitals of young people.
In a strongly worded letter in 2005, Dolan explained that Wagner was continuing to have unsupervised contact with minors and was continuing to re-offend. Wagner had admitted to some of the sexual assault allegations, but denied others.
About 10 months later, Archbishop Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded, asking for more information on the case.
In January 2008, Dolan wrote back, including a summary of the allegations of sexual abuse, including new ones that he still might have been in contact with teenage boys. The Vatican a month later gave Dolan permission to begin a penal process against Wagner or ask him to voluntarily leave. The penal process included multiple steps and circled back to the Vatican.
But Pope Benedict XVI did not order him laicized until 2012.
The victim advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests called the correspondence with the Vatican on the transfer of the cemetery funds a "smoking gun" and proof of a fraudulent transfer under U.S. bankruptcy law. And it called on James Santelle, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, to investigate.
"It is clear that these assets were diverted from creditors in the bankruptcy action intentionally," SNAP Midwest Director Peter Isely said in a letter to Santelle.
Under bankruptcy law, a debtor cannot transfer assets in a way that benefits one class of creditors over another — for example, sex abuse victims, explained Marquette Law School professor and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske.
"But I don't know whether this trust qualifies" as an unlawful transfer, she said.
Dolan's letter seeking Vatican approval for the transfer was sent just weeks before a July 1, 2007, decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that would open the door to potentially dozens of sex abuse lawsuits.
Wisconsin victims had been barred from the courts since 1995 when the Supreme Court ruled that lawsuits against religious institutions for their handling of sex abuse cases violated the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. The court reopened the door in 2007 for cases that alleged fraud. The Vatican granted its permission for the transfer of the cemetery funds 17 days later.
At least a dozen victims had filed fraud lawsuits against the archdiocese by the time it declared bankruptcy in 2011.
The depositions of Weakland and Sklba provided insights into how the archdiocese responded to sex abuse allegations in the two decades before Dolan arrived in Milwaukee.
Early on, Weakland said, bishops were slow to realize that abusers would re-offend and the depth of the harm that victims suffered. He said officials did not report abusive priests to civil authorities, but would tell parish councils about their histories, effectively putting it "on the grapevine" at the parishes where they were assigned. However, he could not cite any specific examples.
Weakland blamed the silence in part on the clerical culture. "There was a certain kind of fear of scandal, and nobody likes to put their dirty laundry out on the line," he said.
Weakland, who wrote in his 2009 memoir "A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church" that he initially recognized sex with children as a sin but not a crime, resigned in 2002 amid his own sex scandal. He retired after it became known that he paid $450,000 in hush money to a man who accused him of sexual abuse. Weakland maintained that the relationship was consensual.
Sklba, whom Weakland called his "go-to" person on sex abuse cases, testified repeatedly in his deposition that he could not recall details of specific sex abuse cases. However, he acknowledged a "culture of silence" in the archdiocese and society regarding sexual abuse.
Still, Sklba said he thought the archdiocese handled sexual abuse cases better than other institutions.
"I think we have tried to do the right thing," he said.
Records had been sealed
The records released Monday 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, after Kelley made it clear that she was inclined 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 six-year statute of limitations expired because the archdiocese posted the list of 43 abusive priests on its website in 2004. Under Wisconsin law, the clock on the statute of limitations begins ticking when a victim has reason to suspect that he has been defrauded. And church lawyers suggest that the posting should have alerted the priests' victims that they may have been defrauded.