Where'd Milwaukee's cemetery money go? asks priest who wants $7.8 million accounted for

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by Marie Rohde

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A retired Milwaukee priest who is also a certified public account is asking the FBI to investigate why the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Cemetery Trust Fund spent $7.8 million in a four-year period during which the cemeteries' operations generated net profits each year.

The priest, Fr. James Connell, told NCR that he contacted the archdiocese with his questions before sending his letter to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley, who is handling the Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition the archdiocese filed more than four years ago.

Connell, also a former vice chancellor for the archdiocese, said archdiocesan spokesman Jerry Topczewski responded to his email saying that the funds were used solely as they were intended, "but he gave me no explanation for where I was wrong or what I missed in their statements."

"I have not seen the letter, but I'm not sure what standing Father [Connell] has with Judge Kelley," Topczewski told NCR. "Nonetheless, the archdiocese's financial statements, expenditures, etc., have been available to the creditors' committee for more than 4 years and their accountants, BRG, have certainly scrutinized them.

"Regarding any money received from the cemetery perpetual care trust, those monies are used solely for the purpose for which they were intended -- the perpetual care of archdiocesan cemeteries."

In his letter to the judge, Connell notes that the audited financial statements for the fiscal years 2011-2014 that are on the archdiocese's website indicated that $1.95 million a year was distributed by the Cemetery Trust Fund at the same time that other records in the court file showed cemetery operations gains ranging from $428,792 to $535,114.

"Money coming out of Cemetery Trust is supposed to pay the expenses for the eight cemeteries it operates," Connell said. "Why would they need that when they have gains from the operations?"

The gains would come from the sale of plots, markers and other revenues from sources other than the trust fund, Connell said. If the revenues "covered all the cemetery expenses, then the funds distributed from the Cemetery Trust each year ($1,950,000) paid for Archdiocesan expenses other than cemetery expenses."

Connell noted that most of the cemeteries located in the 10-county Milwaukee archdiocese are operated by parishes and are not part of the eight cemeteries covered by the trust fund. Most cemeteries affiliated with parishes, he said, operate on a shoestring and rely on volunteers who care for the grounds.

In December, Connell was one of three priests who sent an open letter to Pope Francis asking for an investigation into the way clergy sexual abuse survivors have been treated in the bankruptcy action. He said he was told that the letter was referred to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, set up by Francis to make recommendations for changes in how clergy sex abuse is being handled. The commission is headed by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley and met last month.

Connell said he sent a second letter to Francis on March 7, saying that the "disturbing financial reality of the Archdiocese [of Milwaukee]" lends credence to the call for an investigation. In that letter, Connell noted that the financial statement filed by the archdiocese with court on Feb. 13 indicate that as of Jan. 31, liabilities exceed assets.

"So, while the archdiocese has some cash, investments and other assets, the archdiocese does not have enough assets to pay its liabilities -- unless they include the assets of the Cemetery Trust which the archdiocese contends are restricted to serve the needs of eight cemeteries but not the other liabilities of the archdiocese," he said.

[Marie Rohde is a freelance writer and frequent NCR contributor based in Milwaukee.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 27-April 9, 2015 print issue under the headline: CPA priest questions cemetery trust spending.

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