MILWAUKEE – The Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a former priest who received money to leave the ministry following allegations of sexual abuse say that payment and others were a form of charity meant to help men transition to a new life following the priesthood.
The archdiocese acknowledged paying suspected pedophile clergy after an abuse victims' group produced a court document on Wednesday that mentioned a 2003 proposal to pay $20,000 to "unassignable priests" who agree to leave the ministry. The document from the archdiocese's bankruptcy proceedings includes minutes from a 2003 meeting of its Finance Council, which included then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now a cardinal and head of the New York archdiocese.
Council members discussed how the church should handle sexual abuse complaints, a possible budget deficit and how to cut costs. The $20,000 payments were among the options mentioned.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests characterizes the payments as a payoff to priests who molested children.
"This was a signing bonus for signing papers that would be sent to the Vatican," SNAP Midwest director Peter Isely said. "They needed to have been fired. You don't pay someone who has committed a criminal act. You fire them. Period."
The archdiocese says similar payments were made to men leaving the priesthood long before allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the Catholic church. Archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said the payments were a type of severance pay.
"In a sense, it was a sense of charity to help those men transition from the clergy state to the lay state," Wolf said. The church has a responsibility not only to victims of clergy abuse, but to those accused of abuse, she said.
"The church is not giving this money, saying it's acceptable," Wolf said. "It's our calling as Christians to be forgiving."
It made sense at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal to "move these men out of the priesthood as quickly as possible" and the money helped the men with the transition, Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said in a letter sent to church members Thursday. But the archdiocese has since ended the payments, he said.
Wolf said she thought the last payments were made two or three years ago, based on archdiocese correspondence. The archdiocese paid out $90,000 to accused priests in the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, according to a letter Listecki sent members that year. It said nine remaining clerics who had been restricted from the ministry because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor would be notified that financial assistance was ending.
Listecki also said any future reports of sexual abuse would be referred to civil authorities if the accused was still alive and the priest would be immediately removed from ministry.
Jerome A. Wagner said he accepted $20,000 from the Milwaukee archdiocese "because it was time to move on" after he was accused of assaulting a minor. He was never criminally charged and declined to comment on the allegations, but the archdiocese has acknowledged the accusations against him.
"I viewed it as a charity payment on their part to help me get along," Wagner said. "I just viewed it as help for me to readjust to a new way of life."
Wagner said he initiated the process to leave the church with the Vatican and was told by the archdiocese he would receive $10,000 at the beginning of the process and $10,000 when it was over.
Wagner used the money to attend a mortuary school in Illinois. He graduated in 2004 and is a licensed funeral home director in Fond du Lac, the same community where he left the priesthood in 2002.
Because the process of leaving the priesthood can take several years, Wolf said the payments to accused priests are meant to quickly move them out of the ministry and save costs because a priest's salary alone can be about $55,000 a year. She did not know whether other archdioceses offered similar severances.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops didn't immediately respond to a message left Thursday asking about payments in other archdioceses.
The Milwaukee archdiocese acknowledged in 2006 that it gave $10,000 to former priest Franklyn Becker to help pay his health insurance until he became eligible for Medicare.
Dolan, who was archbishop when the payment was made, has denied allegations it was a payoff. Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the New York archdiocese, said Thursday that "the cardinal has read and supports the statements that came out of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee" and would have no further comment on the issue.
Charles W. Linneman, 44, of Sugar Grove, Ill., is among those who think the payments were inappropriate. He is one of the former parishioners who have sued Becker, claiming they were abused by him. The Associated Press does not usually name victims in sexual abuse cases, but Linneman agreed to be identified.
He said the payment to Becker was the archdiocese's way of keeping the abuse quiet.
"It was just a quick way to wash their hands of him," Linneman said. "They kept him on for all those decades. It was very easy to get rid of him."
Dolan asked then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger defrock Becker in 2003, about two weeks after Becker was arrested in California in connection to a sexual assault there in the 1970s. Becker was removed from the priesthood in 2004.
Linneman said he was an altar boy when he met Becker at St. Joseph's Parish in Lyons in 1980 and was abused by him when he visited Becker following the priest's move to Milwaukee. Becker did not return a call seeking comment.