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.
As of June 30, 2012, the Milwaukee Archdiocese had spent nearly $30.5 million on litigation, therapy and assistance for victims and other costs related to clergy sex abuse, its annual statement showed. The archdiocese faces sex abuse claims in bankruptcy court from about 570 people, although some of them involve lay people or priests assigned to religious orders, not the archdiocese.
Anderson says he’s representing about 350 of those 570 and called Monday’s document release a “triumph” for abuse victims. “It brings to them … a tremendous sense of relief,” he said. “They have each done something to contribute to the protection of kids in the future.”
According to the Associated Press, the documents also show that Dolan repeatedly wrote to Vatican officials, pleading with them to dismiss priests accused of abuse, but often was left waiting for years for a response.
One of those cases involved John C. Wagner, who was accused of making advances to students at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan when he was in campus ministry in the 1980s. Dolan’s predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, tried in the 1990s to get Wagner to voluntarily leave the priesthood, but he refused.
In 2005, as settlements with clergy sex abuse victims were piling up, Dolan wrote to the Vatican office in charge of the matter and recommended that it kick Wagner out.
“The liability for the archdiocese is great, as is the potential for scandal if it appears that no definitive action has been taken,” Dolan wrote to Archbishop Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Wagner showed no remorse, Dolan wrote. “His only concern has been his financial status.”
Dolan said that if the Vatican agreed to dismiss Wagner, an archdiocese fund could pay for his needs until he was eligible for a pension. Dolan resubmitted his request, along with details of new allegations against Wagner, in 2008. Amato recommended that Dolan ask Wagner to leave voluntarily, which Dolan did. Wagner’s attorney rejected the request, saying the $20,000 payment that Dolan offered wouldn’t cover the priest’s expenses for the two years until his retirement. Wagner wasn’t officially defrocked until 2012.
A working telephone number for him could not be found Monday, and he did not immediately respond to an e-mail from the Associated Press.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Rose French 612-673-4352