MILWAUKEE — As more victims of clergy sex abuse came forward, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy 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, according to documents released Monday.
Dolan’s correspondence with Vatican officials and priests accused of sexual abuse was included in about 6,000 pages of documents the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released Monday as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court with 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 documents have drawn attention in part because of the involvement of Dolan, who is now a cardinal and New York archbishop and the nation’s most prominent Roman Catholic official by virtue of his position as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The records provide new details on payments made to some abusers to leave the priesthood and the transfer of nearly $57 million for cemetery care into a trust as the archdiocese prepared to file for bankruptcy.
Victims and their attorneys accused Dolan of bankruptcy fraud, pointing to a June 2007 letter in which he told a Vatican office 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. Dolan wrote in the letter that the transfer had been approved by archdiocese’s Financial Council and College of Consultors.
A Vatican office approved the transfer within a month. Jeff Anderson, an attorney for many victims, compared that to 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 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.
Peter Isely, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he would ask the U.S. attorney’s office in Milwaukee to look into the possibility of bankruptcy fraud. However, Marquette University law professor Ralph Anzivino, a bankruptcy specialist, said no criminal charges could be filed unless the bankruptcy judge determined the transfer amounts to fraud.
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 Wagner 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 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 didn’t receive a response until 2008, when he re-submitted his request along with details of new allegations against Wagner.
“The liability for the Archdiocese is great, as is the potential for scandal if it appears that no definitive action has been taken,” he wrote. “Our new found awareness of the severity of damage caused by sexual abuse at the hands of clergy makes it impossible for us to ignore this situation or allow any longer the unresolved nature of this case.”
Amato then recommended 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 email message.
Topczewski said the archdiocese had had a practice of paying priests leaving the priesthood for years before Dolan took over. Most of them were not accused of wrongdoing, and the money helped them transition into their new lives, he said.
At least three priests accused of sexual abuse received payments when they left the priesthood before Dolan’s arrival, according to the documents. Six more left under Dolan, accepting the archdiocese’s offer of $10,000 when they voluntarily agreed to leave the priesthood and another $10,000 when Vatican officials announced their decision about the priest’s future.
Topczewski said the money covered the men’s health care, but it also got “priests out quicker. That’s what victims were asking for.”
Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Rachel Zoll in New York, Michael Tarm in Chicago, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.; and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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