Documents released today in Milwaukee show that Catholic church leaders, including then archbishop Timothy Dolan, deliberately transferred $59 million to a trust in order to protect it from the claims of people who had been sexually abused by local priests. In a letter to a Vatican official, Dolan, now cardinal archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, explains that the move will provide "improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."
The Dolan letter, sent in 2007, is among 5,000 pages made public as part of a bankruptcy proceeding in which the $59 million trust is a point of contention for hundreds of people who have filed claims of clergy abuse. The files also include correspondence in which Dolan informs the Vatican that proposals to change statutes of limitations on sex abuse claims could adversely affect the Milwaukee archdiocese.
Overall, the picture of Dolan that emerges in the papers is one of an administrator struggling to protect an institution's assets while defending its reputation. Some documents confirm that payments were made to induce priests who were accused of abuse to leave ministry and give up their faculties. Others show the bishop's frustration with Vatican officials and their slow-moving response to his requests that men who were credibly accused be dismissed from the priesthood. As years pass and the cases remain unresolved he referenced legislation that would allow for more lawsuits and wrote:
"The more we can demonstrate our seriousness about purifying the priesthood, as the Holy Father has implored us to do, the more we can speak credibly about the adverse effect of such legislation. Our critics challenge us on the fact that known abusers have still not been laicized."
Dolan's complaint represents one of the few instances where an American church leader's frustration with higher-ups in Rome has been made public. Although it comes decades into the sexual abuse scandal, it does show that at least one hiearch was speaking plainly to the Vatican. As Dolan notes in another letter, "The scandal lies not in the laicization but the perception that the church has not acted expeditiously enough knowing the multiple reports of abuse."
Besides the Dolan letters, those who follow the abuse scandal may be intrigued by the transcript of a deposition Dolan gave to Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson earlier this year. The nation's most prominent legal advocate for abuse victims, Anderson has represented more than 1,000 of them during a career that began with one of the first cases ever filed, in 1984. In the transcript the two men joust rather amiably, with Dolan making self deprecating jokes about his "gut" which he called 'substantial' and frequently referencing God and "the Lord."
Long awaited, the records released in Milwaukee today represent only part of the record and more will come. They confirm much of what has been hinted at in the past by litigants. They also reveal, in Timothy Dolan, a bishop who was functioning as a crisis manager. His critics, including many victims of abuse, will have harsh words for the moves he made to protect funds and then declare bankruptcy. However no one will fail to recognize his skill as corporate-style turnaround specialist.