MILWAUKEE – The Archdiocese of Milwaukee was expected to release thousands of pages of documents related to clergy sex abuse on Monday, including the personnel files of more than three dozen priests and the depositions of church leaders including New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the former archbishop of Milwaukee.
A deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and victims suing it for fraud called for the documents to be made public by July 1. Victims say the archdiocese transferred problem priests to new churches without warning parishioners and covered up priests' crimes for decades. Many pushed for the documents' release in the belief that it would be an important part of their healing.
Similar files made public by other Roman Catholic dioceses and religious orders have detailed how leaders tried to protect the church by shielding priests and not reporting child sex abuse to authorities. The cover-up extended to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. Correspondence obtained by The Associated Press in 2010 showed the future Pope Benedict XVI had resisted pleas in the 1980s to defrock a California priest with a record of molesting children. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican office responsible for disciplining abusive priests before his election as pope.
The Milwaukee collection has drawn interest because of the involvement of Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the nation's most prominent Roman Catholic official. Dolan has not been accused of transferring problem priests. He took over as archbishop in mid-2002, after many victims had already come forward. But there have been questions about his response to the crisis, including payments made to abusive priests when they left the church.
The archdiocese has characterized the money, as much as $20,000 in some cases, as a kind of severance pay meant to help priests transition out of the ministry. Similar amounts were made to men leaving the priesthood long before allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the Catholic church, spokeswoman Julie Wolf said last year, when the payments came to light.
Charles Linneman, 45, of Sugar Grove, Ill., was among the abuse victims who spoke out against the payments and pushed for the archdiocese to release its records. Linneman said he was an altar boy when he met Franklyn Becker at a Wisconsin parish in 1980. He read the priest's file several years ago when it became public during litigation in California, where Becker also served.
"It helped me move on," Linneman said. In particular, he was relieved when the file showed no reports of children being abused after him, he said. He had long wondered if coming forward before he did in 2002 would have kept other children from being hurt.
Abuse victims have long sought to hold the church accountable, but most didn't come forward until well into adulthood, when it was too late under Wisconsin law to sue the church for negligence in supervising its priests. A 2007 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision gave them a window, saying the six-year limit in fraud cases didn't start until the deception was uncovered. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, once it became clear that it was likely to face a slew of lawsuits.
As of June 30, 2012, the archdiocese had spent nearly $30.5 million on litigation, therapy and assistance for victims and other costs related to clergy sex abuse, according to its annual statement. It faces sex abuse claims from about 570 people in bankruptcy court, although some of them involve lay people or priests assigned to religious orders, not the archdiocese.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Jerome Listecki, has estimated the files total 6,000 pages. They include the depositions of Dolan and his predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, along with the personnel files of 42 of the 45 archdiocese priests with verified abuse claims against them. Topczewski said the allegations in the files involve abuse that happened years, and often decades, ago.
But at least one priest on the list of 45 is currently under police investigation. Steve Klein, assistant chief of police in Fond du Lac, said it opened an investigation in November on Jerome Wagner, who left the priesthood in 2002. Attempts to reach Wagner at listings in his name were unsuccessful.
Listecki, who succeeded Dolan in Milwaukee, said Tuesday in his weekly email to priests, parish leaders and others that he hoped releasing the documents would allow the church to move forward. But he also warned that descriptions of abuse can be "ugly."
"I worry about the reactions of abuse survivors when confronted again with this material and pray it doesn't have a negative effect on them," he wrote.
Listecki said the documents would show that 22 priests were reassigned to parish work after allegations of abuse and eight of them abused again. He said civil authorities and the archdiocese didn't always pursue investigations, but even when they did, priests often received probation as a sentence and did not go to jail. Overall, Listecki said, "people were ill-equipped to respond" to the problem and "terrible things happened to innocent children."
Esther Miller, 54, of Huntington Beach, Calif., was abused as a teenager by a deacon who later became a Catholic priest. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles made his file public in January as part of a $600 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 victims. Unlike the victims in Milwaukee, Miller said she hadn't received notice of when the documents in her case would be released and initially, it sent her head spinning.
"It's very a dark time ... You see that pattern of the cover-up," she said. But months later, she believes "it was the last final peace for my healing. Because I never sued for the money ... I sued for physical, tangible evidence to show the world."
Archdiocese of Milwaukee: http://www.archmil.org/archmil/home.htm
Victims' attorneys: http://www.andersonadvocates.com/default.aspx
BishopAccountability.org, document collection site: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: http://www.snapnetwork.org/
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