MILWAUKEE -- As the national clergy sex abuse scandal mounted following revelations in Boston in 2002, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, then the archbishop in Milwaukee, faced increasing pressure to cut costs by defrocking problem priests and pushback from his staff when he hesitated, according to newly released records.
Clergy sex abuse victims have harshly criticized Dolan for payments made to at least seven abusive priests who were forced out of the church; they view the money as bonuses given to criminals. The archdiocese has said it long provided money to priests leaving the priesthood as a means of helping them transition into new lives; most were not accused of wrongdoing.
While victims have faulted Dolan for the payments, documents released July 1 show that others in the archdiocese also were pushing to get rid of the priests to ensure that money was focused on caring for victims and on church operations. Dolan and others probably saw the payments as a cost-effective way to speed up the priests' departure.
The documents were made public as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and victims suing it for fraud.
Archdiocese leaders long struggled with how to deal with abusive priests. Under Dolan's predecessors, Archbishops William Cousins and Rembert Weakland, a number were reassigned to parishes after receiving counseling and treatment for alcoholism and other issues. Weakland, archbishop from 1977 to 2002, said in a 2008 deposition that removing the priests wasn't an option back then and restricting their duties didn't turn out well.
"You have somebody sitting there with nothing to do and it gets worse, not better," he said.
After more victims began coming forward in 2002, however, the archdiocese pulled all the priests with verified allegations of sexual abuse of a minor from active ministry. The church was still financially responsible for the men as long as they were priests.
Under Dolan, who took over in mid-2002, the archdiocese offered deals in 2003 to a half-dozen priests accused of sexual abuse to get them to leave the priesthood voluntarily. They received $10,000 when they applied to leave, and $10,000 when the pope dismissed them.
A letter to another priest shows Dolan also sweetened the deal by agreeing to continue paying a monthly stipend while the priests' applications to leave were pending.
A key factor was that the departure process, called laicization, involves a lengthy legal process within the church that moves much faster if a priest goes voluntarily. A priest who volunteered to leave might be gone in two years; one who resisted could drag the process out for years. The files include multiple instances of Vatican officials urging Milwaukee church leaders to get priests to go voluntarily.