THE BLOG

Looking Past Cardinal Dolan's Hearty Smile

03/27/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

In Rome, Vatican watchers like to say that the institutional Catholic Church measures time not with a clock, but with a calendar, and that its memory is as durable as the records in its archives, where Galileo's signature, preserved in the documents from his famous trial, looks like it was penned yesterday. In America the one institution that might match the Vatican when it comes to memory and deliberative care is our system of justice where, according to the reliable cliché, the wheels grind slowly. But grind they do and they are gradually revealing the character behind the façade of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan's hearty smile and twinkling eyes.

In the most recent turn in the struggle for justice by victims of clergy sexual abuse, a federal judge found that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee cannot stash $55 million in a trust devoted to cemeteries and deny litigants access to the money as they sue for compensation. Victims of predator priests have used the courts to seek both the documented truth and financial compensation for more than a decade.

The architect of the trust fund idea was then Archbishop of Milwaukee Dolan, who was subsequently made cardinal of New York by Pope Benedict XVI.

Before he shocked the Church by resigning, Benedict stood as the symbol of the Vatican's immoral and schizophrenic response to abuse as he spoke empathetically but acted to shield both clergy and the Catholic treasury. Dolan practiced the same duality, posing as a Christ-like figure of compassion in meetings with victims but acting as if he never heard the admonition to the greedy contained in the gospel of Luke. Indeed, after establishing the trust he then sought the protection of the bankruptcy court for the rest of the assets of the archdiocese. This strategy was replicated elsewhere in the country as bishops, who understood that victims had won billions of dollars in compensation, recognized in Dolan's example a way to evade claims.

Created just as the state of Wisconsin was moving to permit victim lawsuits against the official church, Dolan's enormous trust fund was described by the archdiocese as a vehicle for the care of eight burying grounds. For the care of clergy victims Milwaukee church officials proposed $4 million, less than 10 percent of the sum earmarked for the dead, to be split by 128 claimants. An additional 450 people who came forward to accuse priests of sexual abuse would have been given nothing because they failed to meet certain legal, not moral, criteria.

Although it was explained in straight-faced seriousness, the notion that this much money would be required for a cemetery trust is hard to square with the experience of leaders at local churches who manage to cut the grass and plow pathways at their cemeteries with the aid of volunteers and revenues from the sale of plots. Court documents show that indeed, the cemeteries of the archdiocese actually operated at a profit of roughly $500,000 per year and the trust gave almost four times as much -- $1.95 million annually -- to headquarters in downtown Milwaukee.

So far, the archdiocese has spent more than $11 million in legal fees to wage its battle with victims in bankruptcy court. The cemetery excesses, since the trust was established, have totaled almost $8 million. Add these moneys to the $55 million secreted away by Dolan and you get an amount -- $74 million -- that would approach a reasonable settlement figure. These facts, revealed by the grinding wheel of American justice, represent the truth behind the hail-fellow-well-met image Dolan has cultivated. Although he has seemed a bit out of step since his sponsor, Benedict, was replaced by the more humble Francis I, Dolan has insisted that he has made no effort to change his style or practice. In view of how this vicar of Christ chose to represent Jesus when he managed the money in Milwaukee, that's too bad for New Yorkers.