MILWAUKEE – As the national clergy sex abuse scandal mounted following revelations in Boston in 2002, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced increasing pressure as the archbishop in Milwaukee to cut costs by defrocking problem priests and pushback from his staff when he hesitated, according to newly released records.
Clergy sex abuse victims have harshly criticized Dolan for payments made to at least seven abusive priests who were forced out of the church; they view the money as bonuses given to criminals. The archdiocese has said it long provided money to priests leaving the priesthood as a means of helping them transition into new lives; most were not accused of wrongdoing.
While victims have faulted Dolan for the payments, documents released July 1 show that others in the archdiocese also were pushing to get rid of the priests as a way to ensure that money was focused on caring for victims and church operations. Dolan and others likely saw the payments as a cost-effective way to speed up the priests' departure.
The documents were made public as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and victims suing it for fraud.
Archdiocese leaders long struggled with how to deal with abusive priests. Under Dolan's predecessors, Archbishops William Cousins and Rembert Weakland, a number were reassigned to parishes after receiving counseling and treatment for alcoholism and other issues. Weakland, who was archbishop from 1977 to 2002, said in a 2008 deposition that removing the priests wasn't an option back then and restricting their duties didn't turn out well.
"You have somebody sitting there with nothing to do and it gets worse, not better," he said.
After more victims began coming forward in 2002, however, the archdiocese pulled all the priests with verified allegations of sexual abuse of a minor from active ministry. The church, however, was still financially responsible for the men as long as they were priests. A letter to one priest in 2005 puts the cost at $1,250 per month plus insurance and pension premiums.
Under Dolan, who took over in mid-2002, the archdiocese offered deals in 2003 to a half-dozen priests accused of sexual abuse to get them to voluntarily leave the priesthood. The priests received $10,000 when they applied to leave, and $10,000 when the pope officially dismissed them.
A letter to another priest shows Dolan also sweetened the deal by agreeing to continue paying a monthly stipend while the priests' applications to leave were pending.
A key factor was that the departure process, called laicization, involves a lengthy legal process within the church that moves much faster if a priest goes voluntarily. A priest who volunteered to leave might be gone in two years; one who resisted could drag the process out for years. The files include multiple instances of Vatican officials urging church leaders in Milwaukee to get priests to go voluntarily.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said victims also were demanding the priests' swift removal and the payments sped that along.
The archdiocese didn't push out all the abusive priests, however. Dolan recommended in a 2004 letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, that some men who were very old or extremely ill be spared expulsion, which he said "could be tantamount to a death sentence." Ratzinger led the office handling clergy sex abuse cases at the time.
Archdiocese staff objected in December 2006, however, when Dolan suggested letting 56-year-old Michael Benham "lead a life of prayer and penance."
Chancellor Barbara Anne Cusack, one of the archdiocese's top officials, and Deacon David Zimprich, a former police officer who had been keeping tabs on priests accused of abuse, wrote back the next day, objecting that Benham wasn't elderly, ill or particularly remorseful.
Zimprich said the archdiocese could end up paying Benham's salary and health insurance costs for more than 20 years.
"What about the physical, emotional, mental and probably spiritual damage he did to his victim(s)? What financial burdens were levied upon them because of his actions?" Zimprich asked.
Benham, a former priest at St. John Nepomuk in Racine, had been accused in 2003 of abuse that started in 1976, when the victim was 11, and continued for four years. The archdiocese reported the allegations to the district attorney, who determined too much time had passed to bring charges, and asked the Vatican office responsible for clergy sex abuse to defrock Benham. But the Vatican office balked when Benham refused to go voluntarily, and Dolan reconsidered.
Cusack urged the archbishop not to take "this step backward."
"How do I honestly look a victim-survivor in the face in mediation and say we are acting consistently with Pope John Paul II's statement that 'there is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm a child'?" if he remained a priest, she wrote.
Cusack also was concerned about the drain Benham would present on the archdiocese's finances.
"I am not sure how we can justify this as "good stewardship" of the resource people have entrusted to us," she wrote, adding later, "How many more people are we going to have to terminate because our finances have been so adversely affected not only by settlements but also by paying unassignable priests? What about the adverse financial effect of the long-term damage to victims-survivors as we have seen with (name deleted from file)?"
The archdiocese had agreed to a nearly $16.7 million settlement with 10 clergy abuse victims in California months earlier. It also was making payments to and paying therapy costs for what it has said are hundreds of victims in Wisconsin.
The archdiocese balanced its books by cutting its staff by about 40 percent in 18 to 24 months, Topczewski said. It also began reducing the abusers' stipends to a level that seemed more in line with the church's obligation to provide "sustenance," he said.
Pope Benedict XVI officially defrocked Benham in August 2008 at Dolan's request. Benham died in February 2012.
Cusack, Zimprich and a spokesman for Dolan didn't immediately respond to phone and email messages requesting comment on the case.
Archdiocese of Milwaukee: http://www.archmil.org/archmil/home.htm
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