2008 - Questions and Answers
Q: Why share this information?
A: The information will be part of a lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and will be released to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. It has been a practice of Archbishop Dolan to share important news with the people of the archdiocese, even when the news is bad.
Q: So, are you sharing this now only because of these lawsuits?
A: No. The archdiocese has been freely sharing information for the last six years, including for instance, mailings to every registered Catholic household in southeast Wisconsin about the abuse issue.
Information has been shared in town hall meetings throughout this summer and fall when Archbishop Dolan met with priests and parish leaders regarding the Faith In Our Future Capital Campaign. Archbishop Dolan also prepared parish leaders about this news at four “state of the archdiocese” meetings in January. The information is being shared directly now because we believe it will become public through these lawsuits and want people to receive the information directly from the archdiocese.
Q: Is this the worst of the news?
A: This is a summary of more than 800 pages of records. There are always phrases and parts of documents that can be used – in or out of context – that make something sound new or different or worse than reported here. Nonetheless, we believe this is a fair portrayal of the incidents reported in the files. We do not make judgments on what is “better” or “worse.” Any instance of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse of a minor is evil.
Q: What about releasing the same information on all other suspected abusers?
A: The information from the files of diocesan priests with any allegation of sexual abuse of a minor were reviewed by civil authorities in 2002 and 2003. Any new allegations are immediately referred to civil authorities if the abuser is still alive.
In addition, an outside review of all diocesan clergy files was conducted to ensure any incident of possible abuse by a diocesan priest was uncovered.
The names of all diocesan priests with substantiated incidents of sexual abuse of a minor are posted on the archdiocesan web site and have been since 2004.
However, we do not believe that the ugly, graphic details of each individual case need to be released publicly. This serves no purpose but to sensationalize the incidents and re-victimize those who have suffered abuse.
There is also the issue of an individual’s right to privacy when it comes to personnel files. No business or organization would release information in the private, personnel files of someone in their organization.
Q: What can we expect from the news media about these documents?
A: We would expect news media to treat this information as they would any other type of information considered “news.” Our hope is to give readers a more comprehensive view than they may be able to obtain from the news media or, because of limited space and time, the news media may be able to provide.
Q: What is the financial impact of these lawsuits?
A: The first concern of the Church is one of pastoral and spiritual care for all people of the archdiocese, including, especially in these matters, victim-survivors. At the same time, part of our care has to be a healthy concern for all the other equally-important constituents of the Church, and the Church’s financial obligation to practice sound stewardship, and the overall works of justice and mercy supported by the archdiocese.
It is too early to tell what, if any, financial impact these lawsuits will have. Certainly, simply by paying for legal representation, the lawsuits cost money. Each year, a complete financial accounting of the financial impact of the sexual abuse crisis is prepared and that latest information is available at www.archmil.org. In addition, annually, the archdiocese has an outside, independent financial audit and the audit results are reviewed by the archdiocesan finance council and published on our web site. For more information, contact John Marek, CFO, at 414-769-3300.
Q: What about Legislation to open the statute of limitations?
A: As much as we support helping victims of sexual abuse find healing, we cannot support a proposal that selectively and radically repeals the statute of limitations. In fact, Archbishop Dolan, representatives of other faiths, and legal scholars recently provided testimony to the Wisconsin State Legislature on this very issue. This testimony is available for review here.
The statue of limitations exists for very good legal reasons. Finding the truth becomes more difficult as time passes. Pivotal physical evidence is lost and personal recollections fade. Equally problematic, the accused or key witnesses may be deceased. Thus, there is a long history regarding the importance of the statute of limitations in the American legal system. It is fair law and its removal, even temporarily, raises serious constitutional questions among legal scholars.
Perhaps, most importantly, the costs of defending lawsuits and of any damages that might ensue from them is born by innocent third parties, in this case Catholic parishioners, who are in no way responsible for mistakes made by others decades ago. Why should the innocent Catholics of southeastern Wisconsin, who abhor what happened, be penalized because of the actions of a tiny minority of offending priests long ago?
Discussed legislation would permit lawsuits against any defendant but it does not offer equal justice to every victims or survivor. State law limits the liability of municipal and county entities to $50,000 per claim. Thus a Catholic School child abused by a teacher could be awarded millions by a jury, while a child abused by a public school employee could collect only $50,000.
This is not speculation. Research reports recently publicized in our community show the number of incidents of sexual abuse of children in the larger public school system(s) dwarfs the number of incidents in parochial schools.
Finally, the Church has not ignored victims whose claims are barred by the statute of limitations. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has voluntarily mediated settlements with 170 survivors of abuse by clergy for whose claims were barred by the statute of limitations.
We think justice is better served learning from past mistakes and using our knowledge to secure better prevention, prompt reporting of abuse, and strict accountability for offenders.
Removing the statute of limitations would simply make it more attractive to sue the Catholic Church, and would do nothing to punish the offenders themselves.
Q: Why aren’t priests who have sexually abused children in jail?
A: The archdiocese would fully cooperate with law enforcement officials if they moved to put a know abuser in jail. In fact, in 2003, the files on all diocesan priests with allegations of sexual abuse of a minor were reviewed with the Milwaukee County District Attorney to determine if any criminal charges could be brought.
Although there has been much talk about opening a legislative window allowing victims/survivors to file civil lawsuits and collect financial damages, efforts aimed at opening a window that would allow the criminal charges to go forward have failed. In both cases, under Wisconsin law, the re-opening of passed statutes of limitation has been ruled to be unconstitutional.
Q: Recently you announced a capital campaign – how does this affect that campaign?
A: The Faith In Our Future Capital Campaign is moving forward, with pilot parishes already in “campaign mode” at 12 sites. The Faith in Our Future Trust has been legally established to ensure that the intent and conditions of donors are followed and respected. This trust is separate from the archdiocese, has obligations of its own, and can only be used for the represented purposes of education and faith formation, not for debts of the archdiocese, the past or present expenses of the abuse crisis, or operating costs at the archdiocesan central offices.
This February, the first parish “wave” of about 40 parishes will move forward. Archbishop was blunt with lay leaders in priests in telling them that such “bad news” about Becker and Widera was on the way, but they encouraged him to move forward, noting that the good work of the Church in our community must continue.
Q: If you suspect that priests are guilty, why are you defending lawsuits? Why don’t you just settle with the victims?
A: We have. Resolution has been reached with 170 individuals – the majority through the independent mediation system. Recognizing the need for a process outside the Church structure to address claims of sexual abuse of a minor by diocesan clergy, an independent, voluntary mediation system was introduced in January 2004.
Q: That’s great, but why defend lawsuits?
A: For people who have chosen to sue, that is a decision they have made. Once the matter is in the legal system, the processing of those claims is up to the courts. If resolution is not reached, the archdiocese has no option but to proceed as directed by the courts to resolve the matter.
Q: I thought victims/survivors could not sue the Church in Wisconsin.
A: That has been a myth for some time. Victims/survivors have always had the right to sue the Church. However, just like with any civil action, the window for suing the Church has been governed by a statute of limitations. The time limit was extended, with Church support, by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2004.
Q: What about Becker?
A: Becker has been permanently removed from the priesthood, so he can never again function as or represent himself as a priest. His name has been released to the media and his name is listed on the archdiocesan web site. Local law enforcement officials have been advised of his presence and his history, as have local parishes in the area where Becker lives. Any new allegations against Becker would be turned over to civil authorities, as is archdiocesan policy with all allegations received against men that are still alive. Because Becker is laicized, the archdiocese has no influence over where Becker lives as an independent citizen.
Q: What about making the contents of other accused priest personnel files public beyond civil authorities.
A: No. These are unique situations. Files involving MacArthur and Widera have been previously or will be released in litigation. Claims involving Franklyn Becker are currently in litigation and have already been the subject of legal proceedings. Because of that, we believe sharing the information with you directly is most helpful.
Doing this does not change our belief in the rights of individuals to privacy, especially when it comes to confidential, personnel files, or medical and legal information.
Q: Should uninvolved priests, deacons or lay employees be concerned about the release of information in their personnel files now that you have released information on Widera, MacArthur and Becker?
A: No. We have no intention of releasing information in the private, personnel records of our uninvolved priests, deacons and lay employees, and we intend to counter the demands of tort attorneys that we do so.