MILWAUKEE – Clergy sex abuse victims have long accused the Archdiocese of Milwaukee of spending more money on lawyers to protect itself than to care for those who suffered at the hands of abusive priests. An Associated Press analysis of documents released this week found most of the $30 million the archdiocese paid out through mid-2012 went to victim settlements and therapy, but the bulk of it went to just a few victims — while hundreds of others got no money at all.
The archdiocese released the records as part of a deal with victims suing it for fraud in federal bankruptcy court. The documents cover 88 settlements worth at least $6.6 million and provide the first detailed look at which victims were paid, how much and when. Until this week, the archdiocese had only released annual totals.
The records support victims' longtime claim that Wisconsin for many years was among the more difficult states for them to get compensation. The main reason was a 1995 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that made it nearly impossible to hold the church responsible for its priests' actions. The court said the church was protected from negligence lawsuits by the First Amendment. No longer afraid of litigation, the archdiocese established a no-settlement policy that lasted until the national clergy abuse scandal erupted in 2002.
"It was an appalling decision," said Peter Isely, a longtime activist who now serves as the Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Because (Milwaukee victims) were raped and sexually assaulted by a priest, unlike anywhere else in the country, they could not exercise their civil rights and file their case in court."
It's impossible to say for certain how much money clergy sex abuse victims have received from the Milwaukee archdiocese, because accounting before 2003 is questionable. Annual reports released by the archdiocese since then put the total cost of clergy sex abuse at $30.5 million as of June 30, 2012, with roughly $3 out of every $4 spent in the past decade going to victim settlements, therapy and other aid. An update for the fiscal year that just ended has not yet been compiled.
While victims question the archdiocese's totals, they can't come up with their own because the archdiocese's accounts and most settlement records are not public. The 6,000 pages of documents released Monday represent only one-tenth of the papers the archdiocese turned over to victims' attorneys during the bankruptcy case. The rest are still sealed, and Jeff Anderson, who represents 350 of the approximately 570 people with bankruptcy claims, said many more files weren't turned over.
The files that have been made public, however, support victims' claims that relatively few settlements were made before 1995, almost none were paid after the state Supreme Court ruling that year and, even once mediation began in 2003, the archdiocese gave victims little room to negotiate.
The largest settlement paid to victims abused by priests assigned to the Milwaukee archdiocese, nearly $16.7 million in 2006, went to 10 people in California who were abused while the priests were working there. It is among the largest per-victim awards in the nation, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy abuse cases. In contrast, the records released this week show the typical payment to a victim in Wisconsin has been $50,000.
Terry McKiernan, who helped found BishopAccountability.org and has spent more than a decade documenting the Roman Catholic church's response to clergy sex abuse, said a number of factors can affect settlements, including the number of victims involved, public attention to the case and state caps on judgments against nonprofits. But he said even so, the situation for victims in southeastern Wisconsin has been "especially bad."
"The factors that you're seeing in Milwaukee, they function elsewhere, but I don't think the extreme suppression of settlements and awards that you see '95 to 2003, and prior to '95 because some of the settlements were so low, you see elsewhere," McKiernan said.
Eighteen of the 88 settlements included in the documents were reached before the 1995 state Supreme Court decision. The amounts range from $2,000 to $675,000, and it's not clear from the records why some victims received more than others who suffered similar abuse.
Hundreds of victims never received anything, Anderson said. They include Monica Barrett, who said she was raped in a church at age 8 by William Effinger. She sued the archdiocese in 1993, when she was 32, but a judge dismissed her case, saying too much time had passed. She appealed, but got nowhere after the 1995 state Supreme Court decision. Meanwhile, the archdiocese sued her for $14,000 to cover its legal costs.
"I believe what they wanted to do is make an example of me and say, 'See this is what is going to happen to you if you come after the Catholic church,'" said Barrett, a 52-year-old paralegal who lives in Milwaukee.
Most of the settlements made public were reached as part of a mediation program New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan started in 2003, when he was archbishop in Milwaukee. Victims typically received about $50,000 plus therapy costs, an amount Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said reflected a number of factors, including what victims elsewhere seemed to be getting and the archdiocese's estimate of its ability to pay. Topczewski said hundreds of people received settlements and therapy through that program, although only about 60 were made public.
Several victims who reached deals told The Associated Press they were pressured to sign quickly without a lawyer present. Sharon Tarantino, a 53-year-old customer service representative who lives in Grafton, is among several dozen now trying to reopen their claims in bankruptcy court. She was abused for several months at age 11 by Siegfried Widera. Nine of his other victims got about $1 million each in the California settlement. Tarantino received what she described as a $65,000 take-it-or-leave-it offer.
"'How do you put a price on that?' is what I wondered," she said. "To this date, I wonder, how do you put a price on taking someone's life away from them?"