MILWAUKEE – The Archdiocese of Milwaukee said Wednesday it will release thousands of pages of documents tied to sexual abuse lawsuits, including depositions with some former top officials.
The archdiocese, which had been fighting the documents' release, made its announcement the day before the matter was to be decided in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Milwaukee. The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2011 to deal with about 500 sex abuse claims. Lawyers representing the men and women who filed the claims had been seeking the documents' release.
The documents include depositions by New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who previously led the Milwaukee archdiocese, as well as by former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland and retired Bishop Richard Sklba. Victims' advocates have accused archdiocese leaders of transferring abusive priests to other parishes and concealing their crimes for decades.
Jerry Topczewski, the chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the archdiocese will post the documents on its website by July 1. The documents will also include items from priests' personnel files and the files of bishops and other church leaders.
Topczewski said officials need time to ensure the identities of sexual-abuse victims are fully redacted. The archdiocese also plans to post timelines to provide some context for the documents.
"I think what the archbishop has done is say, `If this is what's needed for resolution, if this is going to help abuse survivors, then I'll authorize their release without the court being involved,"' Topczewski said.
Dolan, who led Milwaukee's Roman Catholics from 2002 to 2009, gave a deposition in February in which his attorney said he had answered questions about his decision to publicize the names of clergy members who'd been accused of molesting children in mostly decades-old cases.
"As I stated at the time of the deposition, I was grateful for the opportunity to go on-the-record with a full account of how the Archdiocese of Milwaukee responded to abuse survivors, and to answer any questions that I could," Dolan said in a statement Wednesday. "I stand ready to assist in any way that I can in the future."
Plaintiffs' attorney Jeff Anderson said the archdiocese's decision marks a "giant step" toward helping the survivors heal. He said the next steps will involve resolving financial claims with the archdiocese's insurance companies.
"The survivors' priority was the document disclosure," Anderson said. "Now that this is achieved we can now pursue with vigor the archdiocese's insurance companies, who have been a major impediment to resolution."
One Milwaukee plaintiff told The Associated Press that even though he was glad the documents would be revealed, he wasn't eager to read them himself.
"I think it's good for the general population because then other people can get a glimpse," said Billy Kirchen. Now 46, Kirchen says his choir director at a Milwaukee parish assaulted him for five years beginning in the 1970s when he was about 11. "I'll probably read it at some point, but it'll probably be an affirmation of what I already believed was going on: secrecy, untruths, cover-ups."
The AP generally doesn't identify people who say they were victims of sexual abuse, but Kirchen gave permission to use his name.
Milwaukee is the eighth U.S. diocese to seek bankruptcy protection over abuse claims. Advocates for victims have accused Milwaukee church officials of trying to shield its assets, in part by transferring millions of dollars several years ago into a cemetery trust fund and a parish fund.
Some of the documents to be released go back as far as 80 years, the archdiocese said in a statement. The papers will show that church leaders often didn't know about abuse until years after it happened, in many cases because victims didn't report the crimes to church or public authorities until decades later, the statement said.
The documents also detail how priests who were accused of abuse in the 1970s and `80s were often removed from their parishes for medical reasons, sent for counseling and then reassigned to other parishes with the recommendation of their medical professionals. The diocese said the documents will show that most priests who were reassigned did not abuse again, although some did.
Other documents show that police, church and other authorities did not always investigate abuse claims and that priests who were convicted did not always receive jail sentences, the archdiocese said.
Sklba took over as head of the archdiocese after Weakland abruptly retired in 2002 after news broke that Weakland had secretly reached a $450,000 settlement with a man who said Weakland sexually assaulted him in 1979.
"I welcome the release of my deposition transcripts and of these documents as a way to further get out the truth of what happened - and what didn't happen - during the many years the Church has been dealing with this issue," Sklba said in a statement.