MILWAUKEE -- As more victims of clergy sex abuse came forward, Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan oversaw a plan to pay some abusers to leave the priesthood after writing to Vatican officials with increasing frustration and concern, warning about the potential for scandal if they did not defrock problem priests, according to documents released yesterday.
Dolan's correspondence with Vatican officials and priests accused of sexual abuse was included in about 6,000 pages of documents the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court with clergy sex abuse victims suing it for fraud. Victims say the archdiocese transferred problem priests to new churches without warning parishioners and covered up priests' crimes for decades.
The documents have drawn attention in part because of the involvement of Dolan, now a cardinal and archbishop of New York and the nation's most prominent Roman Catholic official by virtue of his position as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The records provide new details on payments made to some abusers to leave the priesthood and the transfer of nearly $57 million for cemetery care into a trust as the archdiocese prepared to file for bankruptcy.
Victims and their attorneys accused Dolan of bankruptcy fraud, pointing to a June 2007 letter in which he told a Vatican office that moving the money into a trust would provide "an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."
Church law requires bishops to seek Vatican approval for any property sale or asset transfer in the millions of dollars.
A Vatican office approved the transfer within a month. Jeff Anderson, an attorney for many victims, compared that with the long lag in responses to defrock abusive priests.
"These documents show that if they want to move money to protect it from survivors they can act quick as a fox," Anderson said. "If they want to protect kids, if they have full knowledge of kids in peril, they keep it secret while the Vatican drags its feet and children are kept at peril."
Dolan, in a statement, called any suggestion he was trying to shield money from victims an "old and discredited" attack.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the money was always set aside in a separate fund for cemetery care and moving it to a trust just formalized that.
Topczewski said the archdiocese had had a practice of paying priests leaving the priesthood for years before Dolan took over. Most of them were not accused of wrongdoing, and the money helped them transition into their new lives, he said.
At least three priests accused of sexual abuse received payments when they left the priesthood before Dolan's arrival, according to the documents. Six more left under Dolan, accepting the archdiocese's offer of $10,000 when they voluntarily agreed to leave the priesthood and another $10,000 when Vatican officials announced their decision about the priest's future.
Topczewski said the money covered the men's health care, but it also got "priests out quicker. That's what victims were asking for."