Letter calls on Vatican to investigate Milwaukee bankruptcy

This story appears in the Milwaukee bankruptcy feature series. View the full series.

by Marie Rohde

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Three priests are among those who have sent an open letter to Pope Francis asking for an investigation into the way victims of clergy sexual abuse have been treated by the Milwaukee archdiocese in its bankruptcy action.

“How they’ve handled it is just wrong,” said Fr. James Connell, a canon lawyer and retired priest. “They have been hurting people by their actions. It is a moral issue as well as a legal issue. We are hopeful there will be an investigation.”

This is not the first time Connell has been involved in asking the Vatican to investigate misconduct by archdiocesan officials related to a clergy sex abuse scandal. In August, Connell wrote to the Vatican asking for an investigation of Bishop Robert* Finn of the Kansas City-Saint Joseph diocese. 

The intent of the bankruptcy proceeding for the Milwaukee archdiocese is “to exhaust, silence and slander victims/survivors as well as to serve as a warning to others,” the letter asserts and lists six points to justify papal intervention:

  • Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki directed the church attorney to file for Chapter 11 reorganization in U.S. Bankruptcy Court saying that the action “would provide a means to compensate victims/survivors with unresolved claims while allowing the archdiocese to continue its essential ministries.” No eligibility requirements were listed.
  • The archdiocese “went to great effort and expense” to find victim/survivors. “Indeed, the bankruptcy claims process seemed inviting, not restrictive; it created hope for justice and healing.”
  • About 575 claims of abuse were filed with the court.
  • In 2013 it came to light that in 2007, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now cardinal of New York, had transferred about $57 million into a trust fund for the perpetual care of nine cemeteries nine cemeteries. The letter quoted Dolan, who told the Vatican that the intent was to provide “improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.” That scandalized Catholics and non-Catholics, the letter stated. 
  • Earlier this year, the archdiocese objected to all of the claims based on sex abuse, saying none had merit, but said it would be willing to compensate 125 claimants “only because doing so would be less expensive than fighting these claims in court,” according to the letter.
  • While the archdiocese could change its approach, “the archdiocese appears to intend to continue on the course it has been following. … They intend to object to all the claims.”
  • Documents in the court file show that legal and administrative fees have reached $18 million. ”There is enough money to compensate attorneys but not victims survivors,” the letter states.

The letter asks Pope Francis to help and send a delegation to investigate. “The archdiocese’s handling of this bankruptcy case has been scandalous and unjust,” the letter concluded. “Even some legal experts throughout the United States are referring to the archdiocese’s case as an example of how not to handle a bankruptcy case.”

Connell told NCR the archdiocese is not only attempting to deny all the claims without denying that the abuse occurred but also set a precedent for how future church bankruptcy cases are handled.

He said the church induced victims to come forward when it filed for bankruptcy but never placed any restrictions on who could file a claim. “That is morally wrong and it may be legally wrong,” Connell said.

Listecki authorized the filing of the bankruptcy in January 2011. Milwaukee archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski told NCR that the archdiocese spent $30 million on financial settlements with abuse survivors outside the bankruptcy.

“It was the inability to settle lawsuits in 2010 that led to the Chapter 11 filing,” Topczewski said. “You’ll recall that the archdiocese offered $4 million to settle lawsuits to that group of people.”

Topczewski blamed lawyers for the claimants for the large number of survivors who joined the lawsuit, saying that the 17,000 television ads did not place restrictions on which victims could file claims.

“So it was not the archdiocese that created these false hopes,” he said. “The archdiocese has said from the beginning it would look at those with eligible claims and that certainly would not include those who were not claiming abuse by an archdiocese of Milwaukee priest.”

He did not respond to the letter’s assertion that all 575 claims were denied in the bankruptcy and that only 125 should share whatever remains.

Connell called the actions of the archdiocese a re-victimization of the claimants. He noted that when the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, a number of sex abuse cases that were about to go to trial in state court were avoided. “If the archdiocese believes that all the claims are without legal merit, why is the archdiocese in bankruptcy court?” 

Claimants have complained that the first victim of a known pedophile is ineligible for compensation, that the perpetrator was a religious order priest, teacher, nun or other employee working with the archbishop’s permission in the diocese and only a few could meet the strict standard of Wisconsin law – that the archdiocesan officials were aware of a priest’s history of abuse – and are eligible for compensation.

Peter Isely, one of the claimants and also the Midwest director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said many survivors were hopeful with the election of Pope Francis but added “in some ways it’s worse since his strong words on abuse to have little or no effect on reactionary bishops like Listecki who are using every means Catholic money can buy to thwart justice for survivors and, in defiance of the pope’s words, to basically outsource the Gospel to a hoard of lawyers whose feeding frenzy on billable hours by now must reach a height greater than the Tower of Babel itself.”

The other two priests who signed the letter asking for the Milwaukee investigation, Fr. Howard Haase and Fr. Charles Wester, were not immediately available. Also signing the letters were four victims – Isely, John Pilmaier, Vicky Schneider and Michael Sneesby as well as Pilmaier’s parents.

In addition to sending the letter to the pope, copies were sent to Listecki, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, and Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano*, the Apostolic Nuncio of the United States.

Meanwhile, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago is expected to rule soon on a key issue: whether the $57 million transferred to cemetery trust fund should be used to pay claims in the bankruptcy.

[Marie Rohde is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.]

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Finn's and Vigano's names.

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 19, 2014-Jan 1, 2015 print issue under the headline: Letter calls on Vatican to investigate Milwaukee bankruptcy.

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