The records will contain parts of 42 priests’ personnel files as well as depositions of former Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now cardinal of New York; retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland; retired Bishop Richard Sklba; and now-defrocked priest Daniel Budzynski.
Most of the information, which is being released as part of an agreement in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceedings, has never been seen publicly.
“Needless to say, there are some terrible things described in many of the documents,” Archbishop Jerome Listecki said in his weekly letter to local Catholics in advance of the release. To those deciding to read the files, Listecki advised, “prepare to be shocked.”
According to interviews and court records, the documents are expected to include: details about how church officials shuttled abusive priests from one parish or school to the next without divulging their histories; correspondence between the archdiocese and the Vatican, which has the final word on defrocking priests; evidence that the archdiocese under Dolan paid some priests to accept that decision without protest; and graphic accounts of sexual assault of young people.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley has acknowledged in court the disturbing nature of some of the documents. Earlier this year, commenting on the case of Franklyn Becker, a priest who molested at least 10 teenage boys beginning in the 1960s, Kelley said: “Every time I have to read his file, I’m just devastated.”
Jeffrey Anderson, who represents most of the 575 men and women who filed sex abuse claims in the bankruptcy, argued for the release of the documents and called it a victory for victims and survivors.
“From the outset, what survivors have wanted most is to protect other kids,” said Anderson. “And the only way you can do that is to have full disclosure of what has been done in the past.”
Listecki, who was not available for this story, worried in his letter how victims would weather the public release of such information. To some, that rang hollow.
“Releasing these documents is not going to hurt us. The damage has been done. We can’t suffer any more than we already have,” said Charles Linneman of Sugar Grove, Ill.
Linneman was abused by Becker at the age of 14 at St. John’s Parish in South Milwaukee and now serves as chairman of the bankruptcy creditors committee.
“I haven’t met one survivor who wants those documents to stay sealed,” he said.
One group of offenders
The individual priest files will focus on one group of offenders accused in the bankruptcy claims: 42 of the 45 priests named on the archdiocese’s website as having substantiated allegations of sexually abusing at least one minor.
They include some of the archdiocese’s worst sex offenders. Among them: the late Father Lawrence Murphy, who is believed to have molested as many as 200 deaf boys, most during his decades at St. John School for the Deaf in St. Francis; and Sigfried Widera, who was facing 42 counts of child abuse in Wisconsin and California when he jumped to his death from a Mexico hotel room in 2003 as authorities closed in.
All of the files will be redacted to omit names and other information that would identify victims, their families or those who reported the abuse who were not employed by the local archdiocese or another Catholic entity. They also will omit private medical information and information covered by attorney-client privilege.
The cache will not include the records of religious order priests, brothers and nuns; or teachers and others accused in bankruptcy claims. Also omitted will be three defrocked or deceased priests who appear on the archdiocese’s list — James Godin, Roger Schneider and Donald Musinski. In the case of Godin and Schneider, their victims could be identified; as for Musinski, he was added late in the process.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, many of whose members have claims in the bankruptcy, has criticized the limited nature of the release and called on the archdiocese to add to its list religious order priests and other offenders who worked in the archdiocese’s parishes, schools and other ministries in the 10-county area.
Nearly a dozen religious order men and women have substantiated allegations against them, according to news accounts, court records and a database of abuser priests maintained by the nonprofit Catholic watchdog site www.bishop-accountability.org. And victims’ attorneys say there are 100 known or accused offenders identified in bankruptcy claims — 75 of them priests — who do not appear on the archdiocese list.
“Every clergy person known to have harmed or assaulted a child — every teacher, every person who worked in the archdiocese — should be on that list. For public safety,” said Peter Isely, SNAP’s Wisconsin director, who was sexually assaulted by a Capuchin priest while a student at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mount Calvary in the 1970s.
The records to be released have been under seal as part of a protective order issued by Kelley early in the bankruptcy to protect victims and some of the accused. The order is so broad that even legal arguments must be filed under seal.
The archdiocese had fought the release for months — as it has in past court cases — saying victims could inadvertently be identified. But it reversed course in April after Kelley made it clear in court that she was likely to unseal at least some of the documents.
The archdiocese on Saturday issued a series of talking points and a Q&A for priests and parishes to address the issue. It makes no mention of Kelley’s comments. Instead, it says, it decided to release the records “as part of our commitment to open and candid communication.”
Interest in depositions
The depositions are expected to draw particular scrutiny, especially any new information connected to Dolan, who led the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 2002 to 2009. Now considered the most powerful American bishop, he was heralded at the time for his outreach to victims. But since then, allegations have been made that in anticipation of the bankruptcy filing, he directed the movement of millions of dollars into special trusts in an attempt to shield them from abuse settlements. Both Dolan and the archdiocese have denied the allegations.
Sklba’s deposition will also be examined closely because as auxiliary bishop he was, in Weakland’s words, the “go-to” person for dealing with sex abuse cases. In anticipation of Monday’s document release, Sklba wrote what he called “a few words of introduction” to his deposition.
“Although the decisions I made and the actions I took to deal with clergy offenders were done in good faith and in light of the knowledge available at the time, I deeply regret any initial judgments which added to the pain of victims of this tragedy,” he wrote.
In their letters, both Listecki and Sklba emphasized a common theme within the church hierarchy throughout the sex abuse scandal — that the understanding of child sex abuse has evolved, and that — to use Listecki’s words, “it is easy to question decisions of the past with the insight of today.”
Over 40 years, Sklba wrote, “society’s general attitude toward perpetrators of sexual abuse moved in a trajectory from understanding abuse as sin with the possibility of forgiveness, to psychological flaw with hope of treatment, to deeper issues of addiction and finally to criminal activity.”
The Milwaukee Archdiocese has been in bankruptcy since January 2011, becoming the eighth Catholic diocese to file for Chapter 11 protection to minimize its liability in mounting sex abuse lawsuits. Under Chapter 11, a debtor and creditors negotiate a reorganization plan that would allow the debtor to compensate creditors — primarily sex abuse victims, in these cases — and retain enough in the way of assets to continue to operate.
Victims believe the documents will prove the archdiocese defrauded them by knowingly moving abusive priests from one parish or school to the next without divulging their histories — the allegation underlying their claims to compensation.
The archdiocese denies the fraud. But if it had defrauded victims, its lawyers have argued, the clock on the six-year statute of limitations started ticking by at least 2004 when it first posted the names of 42 abusive priests on its website.