MILWAUKEE (AP) — As the Archdiocese of Milwaukee prepared to file for bankruptcy amid dozens of claims by victims of clergy sex abuse, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan sought and received permission from a Vatican office to move $57 million from a cemetery fund into a trust to provide "improved protection," according to documents made public Monday.
The 2007 letter by Dolan, who is now cardinal of the New York archdiocese, and the Vatican's response were included in thousands of pages of documents the archdiocese released as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and 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 victims' attorneys have accused Dolan of trying to hide the money as the Milwaukee archdiocese planned for bankruptcy. The archdiocese denies those allegations.
In a statement, Dolan 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.
The release of about 6,000 pages of documents has drawn national attention because of the involvement of Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the nation's most prominent Roman Catholic official. Dolan, who has not been accused of transferring problem priests, took over as Milwaukee archbishop in mid-2002 after many victims had already come forward. But there have been questions about his response to the crisis.
In his June 4, 2007, letter to the Vatican, Dolan said the cemetery fund money would still have to be used to care for cemeteries if placed in a trust. But, he added: "By transferring these assets to the Trust, I foresee 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. The bankruptcy judge will ultimately decide whether any transfer amounts to fraud.
The documents also show that Dolan sought to push problem priests out of the priesthood to avoid further scandal after sex abuse victims began coming forward in the early 2000s.
In July 2003, Dolan wrote to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, asking to dismiss Daniel Budzynski, who had sexual abuse allegations against him stretching back to the 1970s.
Dolan told Ratzinger that the archdiocese had yet to identify all Budzynski's victims, but "as victims organize and become more public, the potential for true scandal is very real."
Other documents made public include the depositions of Dolan and his predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, along with the personnel files of 42 of the 45 archdiocese priests with verified abuse claims against them. Allegations against one priest came to light only after the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy and his file will be released later, once it is complete, Topczewski has said. Two other priests' files aren't being released because they involve single victims who could easily be identified.
Clergy sex abuse victims have criticized the archdiocese for releasing only part of the priests' files. The documents made public represent about 10 percent of what was turned over to victims' attorneys during litigation. Attorneys for both sides agreed on which ones would be posted. Along with the actual documents, the archdiocese published a narrative about each priest and a timeline of his career.
Abuse victims have long sought to hold the church accountable, but most didn't come forward until well into adulthood, when it was too late under Wisconsin law to sue the church for negligence in supervising its priests. A 2007 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision gave them a window, saying the six-year limit in fraud cases didn't start until the deception was uncovered. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, once it became clear that it was likely to face a slew of lawsuits.
As of June 30, 2012, the archdiocese had spent nearly $30.5 million on litigation, therapy and assistance for victims and other costs related to clergy sex abuse, according to its annual statement. It faces sex abuse claims from about 570 people in bankruptcy court, although some of them involve lay people or priests assigned to religious orders, not the archdiocese.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.
Archdiocese of Milwaukee: http://www.archmil.org/archmil/home.htm
Victims' attorneys: http://www.andersonadvocates.com/default.aspx
Follow M.L. Johnson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MLJohnsonOnline