Clergy sex abuse victims to see Milwaukee archdiocese files
Written by M.L. JOHNSON Associated Press Jun. 23, 2013
MILWAUKEE — The Archdiocese of Milwaukee plans to make dozens of priests’ personnel files public in the next week, along with hundreds of pages of other documents that sex abuse victims hope will hold church leaders accountable for transferring abusive priests to other parishes and concealing their crimes for decades.
The documents are being released as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and victims suing it for fraud. The archdiocese has said the records will include personnel files for 42 priests with verified claims of abuse against them, along with depositions from top church officials, including New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who previously led the Milwaukee archdiocese. The documents are to be posted on the archdiocese’s website by July 1.
Similar files made public by other Roman Catholic dioceses and religious orders have detailed how leaders tried to protect the church by shielding priests and not reporting child sex abuse to authorities. The cover-up extended to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. Correspondence obtained by The Associated Press in 2010 showed the future Pope Benedict XVI had resisted pleas in the 1980s to defrock a California priest with a record of molesting children. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican office responsible for disciplining abusive priests before his election as pope.
Archdiocese officials in Milwaukee have long acknowledged that abusive priests were transferred to new churches with no warning to parishioners. Former Archbishop Rembert Weakland publicly apologized to a Sheboygan church for this in 1992, and in a 2008 deposition previously made public, he spoke of multiple cases in which church leaders were aware of priests’ histories but members were not. Still, victims have pushed aggressively for the priests’ files to be released.
Charles Linneman, 45, of Sugar Grove, Ill., said he was an altar boy when he met Franklyn Becker at St. Joseph’s Parish in Lyons in southeastern Wisconsin in 1980 and was abused by him when he visited Becker following the priest’s move to Milwaukee. Linneman read Becker’s file several years ago when it became public during litigation in California, where Becker also served.
“I really got fed up,” he said. “I’m like, I just can’t believe all these lies and betrayals that went on. … The archdiocese is supposed to be people in charge that are responsible and morally ethical, and that’s not what they did.”
Becker was removed from the priesthood in 2004. Messages left at a Mayville number listed in his name weren’t returned. His file is among a few from Milwaukee that have already been made public. But Linneman said he still plans to read whatever comes out on July 1 because his attorneys told him the records will likely include some he hasn’t seen.
While certain church officials and attorneys for both sides have seen the roughly 6,000 pages of documents, the victims have not.
Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the archdiocese had shared some files with some victims over the years but was reluctant to make them public because of privacy concerns. It eventually agreed to do so when it became clear that victims would hold up the bankruptcy case until the information came out. Some of the files contain graphic material, and people “should be prepared to be shocked,” he said.
At the same time, most of the priests’ names have been known since the archdiocese’s release of 43 with verified abuse claims against them in 2004. Two others, Ronald Engel and Donald Musinski, were added to the list later. The allegations against Musinski came to light only after the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and his file will be released later, once it is complete, Topczewski said. Two other priests’ files aren’t being released because they involve single victims who could easily be identified.
“I got my human dignity back,” she said in an email. “I was able to get truth and power for the first time since I was 16. For years, people thought I was crazy. But now, everyone knows that I was right and truthful all along.”
Yet despite the publicity, her former teacher was able to keep his job at a Michigan college. Officials there see her as a disgruntled ex-girlfriend, Casteix said, adding that the situation “makes me ill.”
5 things to know
How many priests were involved? The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has verified claims of sexual abuse by 45 priests, including 23 who are still alive. None is allowed to work as a priest, and 15 have been officially defrocked. Most of them are accused of abuse that took place before 1990.
How many victims are there? It’s hard to say because some victims may not have come forward. But one former priest, Lawrence Murphy, has been accused of sexually abusing some 200 boys at a school for the deaf from 1950 to 1974. Other priests have been accused by only one person thus far. There are more than 570 sexual abuse claims pending in bankruptcy court, but some of those involve lay people or priests assigned to religious orders, not the archdiocese. Attorneys have not said specifically how many of the 570 claims relate to the 45 priests on the archdiocese’s restricted list.
What happens next? The release of the documents has been important to sexual abuse victims, but it does not affect resolution of the bankruptcy case. Topczewski said the next step in that will be for the archdiocese to come up with a reorganization plan detailing how it will provide for victims and pay its expenses in the future. Mike Finnegan, an attorney representing many victims, says one focus for his legal team will be trying to get the archdiocese’s former insurers to cover abuse claims.