Wis. archdiocese no longer paying priests to leave

Associated Press Modified: May 31, 2012 at 8:31 pm •  Published: May 31, 2012

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a former priest who received money to leave the ministry following allegations of sexual abuse say that payment and others were a form of charity meant to help men transition to a new life following the priesthood.

The archdiocese acknowledged paying suspected pedophile clergy after an abuse victims' group produced a court document Wednesday that mentioned a 2003 proposal to pay $20,000 to "unassignable priests" who agree to leave the ministry. The document from the archdiocese's bankruptcy proceedings includes minutes from a 2003 meeting of its Finance Council, which included then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now a cardinal and head of the New York archdiocese.

Council members discussed how the church should handle sexual abuse complaints, a possible budget deficit and how to cut costs. The $20,000 payments were among the options mentioned.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests characterizes the payments as a payoff to priests who molested children.

"This was a signing bonus for signing papers that would be sent to the Vatican," SNAP Midwest director Peter Isely said. "They needed to have been fired. You don't pay someone who has committed a criminal act. You fire them. Period."

The archdiocese says similar payments were made to men leaving the priesthood long before allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the Catholic church. Archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said the payments were a type of severance pay.

"In a sense, it was a sense of charity to help those men transition from the clergy state to the lay state," Wolf said. The church has a responsibility not only to victims of clergy abuse, but to those accused of abuse, she said.

"The church is not giving this money, saying it's acceptable," Wolf said. "It's our calling as Christians to be forgiving."

It made sense at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal to "move these men out of the priesthood as quickly as possible" and the money helped the men with the transition, Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said in a letter sent to church members Thursday. But the archdiocese has since ended the payments, he said.

Since the payments have now stopped, said Isely, the SNAP Midwest director, "Is this not a clear admission that they were wrong in the first place?"

"And isn't it time for Cardinal Dolan and his successor, Jerome Listecki, to acknowledge the deep moral wrong of taking Catholic charitable funds and funneling them to priest child molesters?" Isely said in a statement Thursday.

Wolf said she thought the last payments were made two or three years ago, based on archdiocese correspondence. The archdiocese paid out $90,000 to accused priests in the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, according to a letter Listecki sent members that year. It said nine remaining clerics who had been restricted from the ministry because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor would be notified that financial assistance was ending.

Listecki also said any future reports of sexual abuse would be referred to civil authorities if the accused was still alive and the priest would be immediately removed from ministry.

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