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Michael D'Antonio Headshot

Cardinal Dolan and the Dead Lose One to the Living

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Who is more deserving: victims of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, or dead people moldering their graves?

When he was Archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan chose the dead people, placing $55 million into cemetery trust funds and out of the reach of local abuse victims suing the Church. (They want compensation for the suffering caused by childhood sexual trauma.) Dolan left Milwaukee to take the most visible post in Catholic America -- cardinal of New York City - but he could not escape his choice. The victims asked a federal bankruptcy judge to reverse him, and on Friday she did. For now the $55 million is available to settle hundreds of well-documented cases in which priests raped and sexually molested children and adolescents.

Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley discussed her decision in court on Friday, explaining that neither First Amendment protections for religion nor federal law protect the archdiocese from her authority. She sided with creditors in the bankruptcy proceedings, who said the main purpose of the 2008 transfer was to place it out of their reach. In fact the archdiocese had managed the task of mowing the grass and otherwise maintaining cemeteries for generations without a $55 million trust generating income for that purpose.

Although lawyers for the Church will challenge Kelley, she stands on solid legal ground and the federal district court judges that consider such issues rarely overrule their colleagues in bankruptcy courts. Also, Kelley's track record in this controversial and complicated case would defy any argument that she has favored the creditors. Indeed, last month she refused an attempt by them to claw-back $35 million that Dolan had distributed to local parishes. "Arguably there was something 'fishy' about the transfer," noted Kelley at the time. But in that instance the funds had originated in local parishes and one could reasonably argue they were simply getting the money back. This time the fishy smell was stronger, and Kelley put hundreds of other cases on hold to resolve the question in favor of the creditors.

For victims in Milwaukee, among them men who were raped by the head of a boarding school for the deaf, Kelley's decision keeps alive their hope for compensation and, perhaps, the release of documents and depositions that will reveal the truth about how Church leaders deflected complaints and allowed abusive priests to evade justice. For Dolan, it is another contradiction to the jolly, caring persona he has presented to the people of New York. (Previously Dolan denied and then admitted he had authorized payments to induce priests charged with abuse to leave the priesthood.)

In the Big Apple, Timothy Dolan has cultivated a happy Irishman image that has won-over much of the public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In Milwaukee, where bankruptcy, parish closings and unresolved abuse claims fester, his image is far less positive. With her ruling, which points-out Dolan's legal and moral transgressions, she's brought the man himself into clearer focus.