Archdiocese of Milwaukee to release sex abuse records

(Journal Sentinel) In a major development in its bankruptcy, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee announced Wednesday that it will make public thousands of pages of documents detailing its handling of clergy sex abuse cases dating back decades.

The decision – a reversal for the archdiocese – came on the eve of a scheduled hearing at which U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley was expected to order the release of at least some of those records, which are under seal.

The release of documents has been a primary objective of victims in the hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases around the country, including the Milwaukee bankruptcy. Both the archdiocese and attorneys for victims heralded the decision as a significant step toward transparency and healing for abuse survivors.

“My hope is by making these documents public we will shed much-needed light on how the archdiocese responded to abuse survivors over the past 40-plus years, and that they will aid abuse survivors and others in resolution and healing,” Archbishop Jerome Listecki said in a letter to parishes, schools and church leaders on Wednesday.

Attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who represents most of the 570-plus men and women with sex abuse claims in the bankruptcy, called it “a great day for survivors and a giant step for child protection.”

“I praise the survivors for their courage in holding on . . . and the archdiocese for finally stepping up and getting this done,” he said.

“We can’t get closure for any of these survivors without this exposure and disclosure, and this goes a long way toward achieving that.”

Under the terms of a stipulation filed with the court on Wednesday, the archdiocese agreed to make public about 3,000 pages of documents that had been sought by attorneys for victims and the bankruptcy creditors. And it leaves the door open for additional records to be released.

The documents, which will be posted on the archdiocese website on July 1, include portions of priest personnel files; and pages from the files of the bishops, the vicar for clergy and other sources within the archdiocese. Also released will be the depositions of Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Bishop Richard Sklba, both retired, and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who led the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 2002 to 2009.

Names and details that would identify victims will be redacted.

The records involve only the 45 diocesan priests listed on the archdiocese website as being credibly accused. Of those, 23 are dead. The remainder have left the priesthood or have been defrocked or restricted from ministry, according to the site.

It does not include records related to religious order priests or nuns, teachers, choir directors and others who have been accused.

“We still have a lot of work to do with the others that are not included,” Anderson said. “Believe me, this isn’t the end.”

Wednesday’s decision was a reversal by the archdiocese, whose attorneys – along with those of Weakland and Sklba – had argued vigorously against the release of records in previous hearings. Kelley, who early in the bankruptcy issued a sweeping order sealing the documents and many of the legal filings to protect victims, had suggested in recent hearings that she was open to a limited release of documents.

Listecki was unavailable for comment Wednesday. His spokesman, Jerry Topczewski, said the archbishop decided to release the documents to remove a major impediment to a resolution of the bankruptcy.

“We need to get a plan of reorganization,” Topczewski said. “His feelings were, if this is a stumbling block, let’s remove it so we can move forward.”

Both Dolan and Sklba issued statements saying they welcomed the archdiocese’s decision. And the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests called it a victory for victims and survivors.

“It is my hope that the release of these documents will also help in the healing process for abuse survivors, as well as their families and loved ones,” Dolan said.

Said Sklba: “I welcome the release . . . as a way to further get out the truth of what happened – and what didn’t happen – during the many years the Church has been dealing with this issue.”

Weakland could not be reached for comment.

Wednesday’s decision resolves just one of the many contentious battles playing out in the bankruptcy, which the archdiocese filed in January 2011 as a way to resolve the mounting lawsuits over its handling of the sex abuse crisis.

Still to come are legal battles over the legitimacy of claims, the availability of insurance and other property to fund a settlement, whether the archdiocese fraudulently transferred millions of dollars off its books to keep it out of the hands of victims, and numerous other issues.