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2008 - Archbishop Dolan's Letter to the Catholic Community

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

As you are painfully aware, over the past six years, there has been much horrible news regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests -- both in this archdiocese and across the nation.

Since my arrival as your archbishop, I have promised to try my best to be open and candid with you, the faithful Catholics of the Church in southeastern Wisconsin. Part of that openness has been my commitment to share news with you -- even when it’s bad.

For example, you’ll remember in summer of 2006, I told you about lawsuits facing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for sexual abuse cases involving former priests Siegfried Widera and Franklyn Becker, and the pending financial consequences of those lawsuits. Those ten cases in California were settled in a multi-million dollar agreement, all of which I made public.

In July of 2007, the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down a decision directing that cases alleging fraud by the archdiocese about sexual abuse by two accused priests of the archdiocese could proceed, even though the events were 20-to-40-years old.

Those cases have now been returned to the trial judges to go forward through normal court procedures, and we can expect to hear a lot about them. In addition, since July 2007, two other cases have been brought against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, alleging sexual abuse in Wisconsin by a different priest, Bruce MacArthur. While not a priest of our Archdiocese of Milwaukee, he did serve here for several years.

During the next weeks, the records of these three accused priests will be part of court proceedings, and we can expect they will be given to the media. Thus, I am sending you this newsletter to let you know of the sordid information that will be forthcoming. As you have often told me: “Archbishop, when there is bad news coming, we’d prefer to hear it from you.” Well, as you will see, this news is nauseating.

There are three priests accused of wrongdoing. None of these three accused individuals are now serving as priests within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, nor have they done so for many years.

The accused are Siegfried Widera, Bruce MacArthur and Franklyn Becker. Widera is dead; MacArthur, 84, is aged and residing in a controlled nursing home; and Becker was laicized in 2004 and expelled from ministry. I mentioned these three at our four recent meetings regarding the “state of the archdiocese.”

However, I want to talk specifically about the case involving Franklyn Becker. As I said, Becker was permanently removed from the priesthood at my request in 2004. Although there could be various explanations for all the decisions that were made or not made, at the end of the day, you will see, I have to admit, these decisions are a particularly ugly example of how the Church made some dreadful mistakes in its handling of these cases. The reports about this ex-priest are very troubling.

Some might argue that since both doctors and civil officials made the same mistakes by recommending reassignments, transfers, or “fresh starts,” that the Church should not be held accountable for the decisions made 20 or 30 years ago. Some would say that the Church was simply following the “praxis” of the time, considering the circumstances, the body of knowledge then available to us, and the recommendations that were presented, suggesting offenders could be rehabilitated, moved, and reassigned.

This might all be true, but I need to say that our faith tells us that our Church must acknowledge that poor decisions were made, regardless of how these decisions were reached. And, the Church’s decisions about Becker were badly misguided.

So what do we do next? Do we hide in the corner while the scab of this mess is once again picked open? No! The good work of Jesus Christ and His Church continues, despite this mess and despite any of us. The mistakes of the past do not change the needs of our people today, the needs of today’s community, or the needs of our world.

Nor, do these things diminish the good work that has been done over the past years as the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has ardently worked with victims/survivors and the wider community to bring healing and resolution. Nothing changes our commitment to continue to work together to ensure that we do everything in our power to protect our children and young people of today and tomorrow.

In the past, people could point and say the Catholic Church is a sad example of what NOT to do, as some of this data will embarrassingly show. Now, however, even outside, objective observers say the Catholic Church is an example of what TO do.

That is why we insist upon safe environment programs in all of our parishes and schools. That’s why all staff and volunteers who work with children and youth participate in safe environment training as a way of recognizing the signs of abuse. That’s why we have a full-time victims-assistance coordinator to work with victims/survivors, and why I meet regularly with a community advisory board, whose members include survivors, advocates and experts in the area of sexual abuse. That’s why now no one who has ever abused a minor can ever serve in priestly ministry again. It’s why I directed the names of offending diocesan priests to be published on our archdiocesan website back in 2004. It is also why I directed an independent mediation system established in 2004 to come to resolution with victims/survivors. To date, we’ve reached resolution with 170 individuals and have provided spiritual, pastoral and ongoing therapeutic assistance, in addition to a financial consideration.

Some of you might ask, “Why are you telling us this; why can’t you just let this be over and move on?” Believe me, part of me would like nothing more, but, I know that the effects of this crisis will never be over. Practically, too, I know that you are better hearing this news from me, all at once.

So that’s why I share it with you now. May I ask that you please pray for people who are victims/survivors of sexual abuse, especially for those whose abuse came about by clergy and Church personnel?

May I also ask that you pray for our Church, especially our Church in southeastern Wisconsin, that the Holy Spirit continue to guide us and give us strength to get through this, and that His Church be cleansed, purified and renewed by the agony of this scandal, sin and suffering.

Faithfully in Christ,

Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of Milwaukee

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