Milwaukee Archdiocese releases details in clergy sex cases

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2013 - 11:32 PM

Archdiocese of Milwaukee makes public personnel files, depositions by church leaders.

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St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson called Monday’s document release a “triumph” for victims. He is representing about 350 of 570 people alleging sex abuse in the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s bankruptcy case.

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The Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Monday released 6,000 pages of documents related to clergy sex abuse, including the personnel files of more than three dozen priests and the depositions of church leaders such as New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, former Milwaukee archbishop.

The documents were made public as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and the hundreds of victims suing it for fraud — a majority of whom are represented by prominent St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson.

During a news conference held at Anderson’s law offices Monday, he stood in front of the reams of church documents and accused bishops and Vatican leaders of refusing to respond quickly enough in addressing reported abuse. Victims accuse the archdiocese of transferring problem priests to new churches without warning parishioners and of covering up priests’ crimes for decades.

“We see a sense of cowardice among the clerics at the top that contrasts with the courage of the [abuse] survivors who … disclosed the secret … and demanded exposure and closure,” Anderson said. “These survivors chose to stand up against them.”

He pointed to documents showing that Dolan oversaw a plan to pay some abusers to leave the priesthood after writing to Vatican officials with increasing frustration and concern, warning them about the potential for scandal if they did not defrock problem priests.

The release of the documents garnered national attention in part because of Dolan’s role. He was archbishop in Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009. He then became a cardinal and the New York archbishop as well as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, making him the country’s most prominent Catholic official.

Dolan, archdiocese respond

The records provide details on plans to pay some abusers to leave the priesthood.

The documents include correspondence suggesting a transfer of nearly $57 million for cemetery care into a trust as the archdiocese prepared to file for bankruptcy. That transfer, Anderson claims, was to shield the money from paying abuse victims.

He pointed to a June 2007 letter in which Dolan told Vatican officials 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 in a little more than a month. Anderson 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.”

In a prepared statement, Dolan called any suggestion that he was trying to shield money from victims an “old and discredited” attack.

Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said that the money was always set aside in a separate fund for cemetery care and that moving it to a trust just formalized that, the Associated Press said.

Anderson, who has built his reputation representing hundreds of victims of sex abuse by clergy for nearly three decades, played a pivotal role in pushing for the public release of the documents. He has advocated for similar files to be released in other clergy sex abuse cases in several states.

In abuse lawsuits filed against Catholic dioceses in Minnesota, Anderson’s law office has asked that church leaders release names of priests who have “credible allegations” of sexual abuse, although church officials have declined.

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