Who owns Milwaukee's Catholic Center?

by Tom Gallagher

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Only in civil courts do lay Catholics and the broader society begin to see the true nature of Catholic dioceses and religious orders.

After all the press releases and "audited" financial statements, there remains plenty of legal head-fakes, numerous civil corporate structures intentionally created and completely controlled by the bishop or archbishop, but "separately incorporated" by tricky bishops, priests and their lawyers.

The notion is for the archbishop or bishop to hide behind a civil legal structure to "protect" diocesan assets from a forced sale. But when the deceptive legal maneuvers are peeled back in a bankruptcy court or in a litigation setting, one can quickly identify the diocese's corporate behavior for what it really is.

It's comical to listen to bishops discuss ethical decision-making in businesses or of transparency and accountability when the multiple inter-connected corporations they control and run hardly adopt such principles. See for example, reporting on the Diocese of San Diego.

Now comes the here-we-go-again case of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee's Catholic Center.

From the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel:

It is perhaps the most high-profile property owned by the Catholic Church in southeastern Wisconsin: a 415,000-square-foot complex on 44 acres along S. Lake Drive in St. Francis.

For years, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has said it is selling the Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center, valued as high as $10 million in recent years, and that it has mortgaged it to fund a $17 million sex-abuse settlement in California.

Now, four months into its bankruptcy, the archdiocese maintains that it has never owned the property that houses its offices and operations, and proceeds from its sale cannot be used to pay any settlement with Wisconsin victims as part of the bankruptcy.

In documents filed with the court and interviews with a church spokesman, the archdiocese now says it rents the Cousins Center in return for maintenance and upkeep from De Sales Preparatory Seminary Inc., a separate legal entity that was incorporated in 1961 to operate a now-defunct high school seminary at the site.

Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki and his predecessor Archbishop Timothy Dolan - who led the local church when the sale plans were announced in 2006 - concedes there may have been "imprecise communications" about the Cousins Center.

"But that doesn't change the facts as they are?.?.?.? that De Sales Preparatory Seminary Inc. owns the Cousins Center, that the archdiocese rents it from the seminary and that they're two separate entities," he said.

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