5 things to know about the Milwaukee archdiocese bankruptcy and cemetery trust fund fight

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Attorneys for victims of clergy sexual abuse and others owed money by the bankrupt Archdiocese of Milwaukee asked the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday to overturn a lower court judge's decision making $55 million in a trust fund off-limits to their clients. A trust fund attorney argued the money was given to maintain Catholic cemeteries and must be used for that purpose.

Here are a few things to know about that case:



New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan created the cemetery trust fund while he was archbishop of Milwaukee. Dolan wrote a letter to the Vatican in 2007, recommending a trust as a way to provide "an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability." The Milwaukee archdiocese had agreed the year before to pay more than $16 million to settle with 10 California residents abused by two of its priests while they lived there. Current Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki oversees the fund as trustee.



According to trust fund attorneys, the Catholic faith requires the archdiocese to provide and maintain cemeteries in anticipation of resurrection when Jesus Christ comes again. "According to this belief, the soul separates at death to meet God, awaiting reunion with its body on the last day, transformed and resurrected through the power of Jesus' resurrection," they wrote in a brief submitted to the appeals court.



The appeal heard Monday was filed last year after U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of clergy sexual abuse victims and the archdiocese's other creditors. After Randa issued his decision, victims' attorneys searched public records and learned that Randa's parents, two sisters, a brother-in-law, an uncle, an aunt and his parents-in-law were interred in cemeteries owned by the archdiocese. Randa paid $3,800 for his parents' crypts, with some of that money to go toward cemetery maintenance. Victims' attorneys have argued this makes him biased.



The appeals court judges did not receive information on how much the archdiocese spends annually to maintain its cemeteries, and the cost is not clear. Operating reports filed in bankruptcy court show hundreds of thousands of dollars in receipts and transactions related to the cemeteries last year, but do not detail maintenance costs.



The archdiocese has proposed a bankruptcy reorganization plan that would provide about $4 million to compensate about 125 clergy sexual abuse victims, but give nothing to many more. Without the trust fund, the archdiocese has relatively few assets and many victims could end up with little or nothing. The stakes are high for the Catholic church as well, as many dioceses hold money in trust and a victory for victims in Milwaukee could make it easier for those elsewhere to pursue the money.