Milwaukee archbishop says he's awaiting abuse survivors' plan for compensation

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

by Marie Rohde

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Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki said Wednesday that he is hopeful there will soon be a resolution to the bankruptcy that has shadowed the archdiocese for nearly four years but said it's up to the survivors of sexual abuse to give him a counterproposal to the $4 million he offered for compensation of some of the victims.

In a rare public event, Listecki responded to questions from the media at a Milwaukee Press Club luncheon.

Creditors in the bankruptcy, filed in January 2011, include more than 500 sex abuse claimants -- although the archdiocese has challenged all but 120 of the claims -- who have rejected the $4 million settlement offer. Listecki said that's all the archdiocese had available.

Since then, the archdiocese has spent some $14 million on legal fees, prompting some to question whether the initial offer was sincere. The judge hearing the bankruptcy case, Susan V. Kelley, has ordered all sides to enter into mediation. An earlier mediation, like the one that Listecki said prompted the bankruptcy filing, failed.

"They have not made an offer," Listecki said. "I hope they make an offer in mediation."

One leader of the survivors reached by email responded to Listecki:

"Before numbers can be discussed the creditors committee and the court have to examine the possible fraudulent way the [former Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy] Dolan and the archdiocese set up the cemetery trust fund and other financial maneuvering to conceal legitimate assets from survivors," said Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Survivors want to be treated fairly and the bankruptcy outcome should reflect the same range of settlements as in other church bankruptcies around the US."

Shortly before leaving Milwaukee for New York, Dolan transferred some $57 million into a fund for the perpetual care of nine cemeteries in the archdiocese. Kelley, the bankruptcy judge, ruled that the money should be part of the estate. The archdiocese appealed the ruling to U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa who said the money was off the table. That decision was appealed the 7th Circuit Court of Appels and a decision is expected in October.

NCR asked if the archdiocese's reputation had been harmed by the conflict between what Listecki has offered to pay those who were abused by priests and what has been spent on legal fees. He did not directly respond, saying that as the bankruptcy debtor, he must pay not only his own lawyers but also lawyers for the creditors. 

"I have to be responsible to my office," Listecki said, adding that responsibility includes the administration, the parishes and trust funds, such as the one for the perpetual care of cemeteries. 

"Do I wish it had been different? Yes," he said. "But the over-lawyering comes from the other side as well as ours."

But could have the legal fees been used to compensate survivors? "I couldn't do that because it was not proposed."

Asked if he was being inconsistent in asking that the parishes be excluded as assets in the bankruptcy but that they be included in a final resolution, Listecki said it was necessary to include the parishes in a settlement in order to bring closure and prevent "an endless series of lawsuits" after the bankruptcy is settled. In both cases, parish assets would be protected, he said.

When asked if he was concerned about the damage done to the archdiocese's reputation, specifically a comment made by a New Mexico bankruptcy judge hearing the case of the Gallup diocese, Listecki said the two cannot be compared.

"It's completely different," Listecki said. "The structure is different. Gallup is a mission, and Milwaukee is an archdiocese."

Still, David Thuma, the New Mexico bankruptcy judge, said: "I don't want this case to be like the Milwaukee case, where the debtor says all the money that could have been paid to creditors has been spent on litigation."

The bankruptcy has not stopped the mission of the church, Listecki said, noting that a comprehensive plan for Hispanic ministry has been completed and that the archdiocese is moving ahead with its 2020 reorganization plan that will result in parishes being organized in clusters to suit "the shifting population."

He said Catholics are supportive of the archdiocese despite the pedophilia scandal and the bankruptcy. "Last year, we exceeded our stewardship goal," he said.

The archdiocese ordained six priests this year, compared to 12 ordained in Chicago, an archdiocese with four times as many Catholics.

Listecki was a military chaplain and has both civil and canon law degrees. He was bishop of the LaCrosse, Wis., diocese on the other side of the state before being named Milwaukee's archbishop.

"When I came here, I became 'the political bishop,' " Listecki said. The moniker came about in part because he called on the University of Notre Dame to withdraw its offer of an honorary doctorate for President Barack Obama and for correcting Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when she offered an opinion that abortion is not always wrong.

He said he was one of many who entered the discussion but was singled out. He said he is not involved in politics per se, but as an archbishop, he takes his role as a teacher seriously.

"There were issues that Catholics needed to be informed about," he said.

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

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 12-25, 2014 print issue under the headline: Listecki says he's awaiting abuse survivors' offer.

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