MILWAUKEE — The Archdiocese of Milwaukee released thousands of pages of documents related to clergy sex abuse Monday, including the personnel files of more than three dozen priests and the depositions of church leaders including New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the former archbishop of Milwaukee.
The documents were made public as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and 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. Many pushed for the documents' release in the belief that it would be an important part of their healing.
The collection also has drawn interest because of the involvement of Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the nation's most prominent Roman Catholic official. Dolan has not been accused of transferring problem priests. He took over as archbishop in mid-2002, after many victims had already come forward. But there have been questions about his response to the crisis, including payments made to abusive priests when they left the church.
The archdiocese has characterized the money, as much as $20,000 in some cases, as a kind of severance pay meant to help priests transition out of the ministry. Similar amounts were made to men leaving the priesthood long before allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the Catholic church, spokeswoman Julie Wolf said last year, when the payments came to light.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Jerome Listecki, has estimated the files total 6,000 pages. They 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.
Archbishop Jerome Listecki said last week in an email to priests, parish leaders and others that the reports of abuse go back as much as 80 years. In the 1970s and 80s, priests were often removed from their parishes, sent for counseling and then reassigned. Twenty-two Milwaukee priests were reassigned to parish work after allegations of abuse and eight offended again, he said. Overall, Listecki said, "people were ill-equipped to respond" to the problem.
Similar files made public by other Roman Catholic dioceses and religious orders have detailed how leaders tried to protect the church by shielding priests and not reporting child sex abuse to authorities. The cover-up extended to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. Correspondence obtained by The Associated Press in 2010 showed the future Pope Benedict XVI had resisted pleas in the 1980s to defrock a California priest with a record of molesting children. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican office responsible for disciplining abusive priests before his election as pope.
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.
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