MILWAUKEE (AP) -- The Archdiocese of Milwaukee confirmed Wednesday that it had a policy to pay suspected pedophile priests to leave the ministry.
The acknowledgement was prompted by a document made public by abuse victims' advocates from the archdiocese's bankruptcy that references a 2003 proposal to pay $20,000 to "unassignable priests" who accepted a return to the laity. The policy was crafted under then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is now a cardinal and head of the archdiocese in New York.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests characterizes the payments as a payoff and bonuses to priests who molested children. The archdiocese disputes that characterization, saying the payments were in part to more quickly move those men out of the priesthood.
The group is calling on the archdiocese to release all records involving the payments and its handling of clergy sex abuse cases.
"You don't give a bonus to a man who rapes children," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted SNAP Midwest director Peter Isely as saying Wednesday outside the federal courthouse in Milwaukee. "If they paid them anything it should have been for therapy and counseling."
According to the Journal Sentinel, the 2003 bankruptcy document appears to be the first public acknowledgement of a formal policy to pay trouble priests to leave.
Disputing that, archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf told The Associated Press late Wednesday that both the payments and the policy regarding them had long been acknowledged by the archdiocese.
"It's not new news," she said.
"SNAP sounds like they're saying these were kind of payoffs to priests who had substantial allegations against them," Wolf added. She said the payments were to help the men transition to lay life without completely losing access to needs such as health care.
The Journal Sentinel article noted that Dolan used similar language in 2006 when he defended a payment to one former priest. A phone message seeking comment from the Archdiocese of New York late Wednesday was not returned.
Wolf also called the payments "a cost-savings for the archdiocese" because the process to involuntarily remove a priest is lengthy and involves Vatican approval.
The bankruptcy document highlighted by SNAP references a meeting of the archdiocese's Finance Council in 2003 that included Dolan, who was then archbishop in Milwaukee.
According to the document, members discussed offering "unassignable priests" $20,000 to accept the process known as laicization.
Jerome Wagner said Thursday he used the money to go mortuary school after leaving his parish in Fond du Lac in 2002. The archdiocese has acknowledged Wagner was accused of sexual abuse of a minor, but he was not charged criminally.
The archdiocese says the payments help quickly remove men from the priesthood.