Yesterday Milwaukee Catholics were treated to a six-thousand-page document dump revealing more information about the way their bishops handled the sexual-abuse crisis over the past few decades. Much of the news is distressingly familiar. You know the dirge: Abusers were routinely moved from parish to parish, or school to school, without telling local administrators why they were being reassigned. Even when bishops practically begged the Vatican to speedily laicize abusive priests, Rome took its time. (The case of John O'Brien seems particularly egregious. He'd been convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager and had petitioned John Paul II to be returned to the lay state. Then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan had to nag the Vatican to grant the petition twice in 2003. O'Brien wasn't laicized until 2009.) But the document cache released by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee does hold some surprises.
In early 2011, Cardinal Dolan, now archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned readers of his blog that they might come across some "preposterous charges" concerning his tenure as archbishop of Milwaukee. Victims' attorney Jeff Anderson had been telling anyone within earshot that when Dolan was archbishop of Milwaukee he moved as much as $130 million off the archdiocese's books in an effort to shield it from victims seeking damages. Not so, said Dolan. He was simply returning money--$70 million of it--to parishes who had it on deposit with the archdiocese. What about the other $60 million? According to Dolan, he was just taking money that had been designated for the care of archdiocesan cemeteries and making sure it was "secure." The annual operating budget of the archdiocese is about $25 million.
But a letter included in the files released yesterday seems to complicate that claim. In June 2007, then-Archbishop Dolan wrote to the Vatican requesting permission to transfer nearly $57 million to a newly created trust for cemeteries owned by the archdiocese. "By transferring these assets to this trust," Dolan wrote, "I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."
The letter was written just eleven months after word came that ten lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Wisconsin would be moving ahead in California, which had enacted legislation making it easier for victims to sue--something many feared would happen in Wisconsin and elswehere. Soon after, the archdiocese announced plans to sell its headquarters. (Dolan had already sold diocesan property totaling $4 million in order to establish a relief fund for victims.) But the housing bubble burst, and Dolan couldn't move the chancery building.
Weeks after Dolan petitioned the Vatican for permission to create the cemeteries trust, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided to allow victims of sexual abuse by priests to sue for fraud if they could show that a diocese had transferred clergy with histories of abuse while deceptively claiming they posed no threat. That opened a window that had been held shut by a 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling barring victims from suing dioceses for negligence. It's not impossible to understand why, in that climate, just as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was preparing to announce its record $660 million settlement with victims, a bishop would be extremely concerned about his diocese's financial exposure.
Still, on Monday Cardinal Dolan put out a statement again denying that he'd transferred the $57 million in order to "shield it from bankruptcy proceedings." He does not take up the reason he gave Rome for moving the money. Instead the cardinal repeats his assertion that creating the cemetery trust was "required by state law and mandated by the archdiocesan finance council." It's not clear what law Dolan is referring to (nor does he remind readers that episcopal authority is not restricted by diocesan finance councils). "Most states have regulatory oversight of cemeteries to make sure they maintain sufficient reserves for upkeep," Jason Berry reported last year, "but dioceses, as religious organizations, are spared such regulation in Wisconsin." But even if there is a law that would compel a religious organization to conform to financial norms set by the state (and it seems that, at least when it comes to religious cemeteries, there is not), would it force the archbishop to fund that trust with so much cash--more than twice the archdiocese's annual operating budget? The cardinal's most recent statement does not help clarify these glaring inconsistencies.
Money may salve the wounds caused by sexual abuse, but by itself it cannot heal them. And no one should pretend that some dioceses' ministries could not be curtailed by large financial settlements. But as the editors of Commonweal wrote after the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced its $660 million settlement with victims, "The havoc wreaked by abuser priests and the bishops who enabled them is first and foremost a matter of unimaginable private anguish for the victims.... A bishop’s fiduciary responsibility for his diocese does not override the demands of justice for victims."