Records: Archbishop paid problem priests to leave
MILWAUKEE — The archbishop of Milwaukee wrote a letter in 2003 to the Vatican office overseeing clergy sex abuse cases begging it to remove a priest who had repeatedly abused children, showed no remorse and at least once engaged in sexual activity with a young boy, the child's mother and her female friend.
The archdiocese provided the priest with counseling and alcohol abuse treatment, limited his job assignments, eventually ordering him to stop dressing as a priest and barring him from seminary buildings. It only received more reports of abuse.
In 2003, nearly 40 years after some of the earliest reported abuse took place, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was then archbishop of Milwaukee, sought permission to have the priest, Daniel Budzynski, officially defrocked. Despite the egregiousness of the priest's crimes, the Vatican office in charge of sex abuse cases, then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, took more than a year to formally dismiss him.
The correspondence was made public Monday along with thousands of pages of other documents detailing sex abuse by dozens of priests in the archdiocese covering southeastern Wisconsin. The documents were released as part of a deal reached in federal bankruptcy court between the archdiocese and victims suing it for fraud. Victims have accused the archdiocese of transferring abusive priests to new churches without warning parishioners and covering up their crimes for decades.
The Budzynski case was among at least a half-dozen Dolan inherited when he took over the archdiocese in 2002 amid the growing clergy abuse scandal. It shows some of the difficulty church leaders had in dealing with serial molesters and a church bureaucracy that in many cases sat on pleas for priests' removal for years.
While other church leaders, including Dolan's predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, have acknowledged they didn't immediately grasp the extent of the problem, Dolan appears to have quickly determined a crisis was in the making. He moved to push out problem priests, even paying them to leave the priesthood, and later acted to protect church assets by transferring $57 million from a cemetery fund into a trust as the archdiocese moved toward bankruptcy.
Victims have accused Dolan of caring more for the church's well-being than theirs, but his letters, such as the one to Ratzinger seeking to defrock Budzynski, show an understanding of the damage done to children.
"The impact on his various victims has been significant," Dolan wrote Ratzinger. "The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has yet to even locate all of the potential victims that could come forward for assistance. Our new found awareness of the severity of damage caused by sexual abuse at the hands of clergy makes it impossible for us to ignore this situation."
Budzynski referred questions to his attorney, Shawn Govern, who said he had no immediate comment.
Victims and their attorneys have accused Dolan of bankruptcy fraud, pointing to a June 2007 letter in which he told a Vatican office that moving the cemetery care money into a trust would provide "an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."
In a statement, Dolan called any suggestion he was trying to shield money from victims an "old and discredited" attack. Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for current Archbishop Jerome Listecki, said the money was always set aside in a separate fund for cemetery care and moving it to a trust just formalized that.
Church law requires bishops to seek Vatican approval for any property sale or asset transfer in the millions of dollars. Dolan wrote in the letter that the transfer had been approved by archdiocese's Financial Council and College of Consultors.
The documents also show that Dolan oversaw a plan to pay some abusers to leave the priesthood. They included John O'Brien, who was convicted of fourth-degree sexual assault in 2000 in a case involving a 17-year-old. At least four other victims later came forward.
The archdiocese barred O'Brien from ministry and celebrating Mass. In 2003, it offered him $10,000 if he would voluntarily agree to leave the priesthood and another $10,000 when Vatican officials announced their decision about his future. O'Brien took the deal but was not officially defrocked until 2009. He did not immediately return a telephone message left for comment.
Jeff Anderson, the attorney representing most of the 575 plaintiffs with sex abuse claims in bankruptcy court, said cases like O'Brien's show that the church put predators before children. He and many victims find it especially heinous that the church paid a priest who had already been convicted of a crime, and they fault Dolan for that.
But Topczewski said the archdiocese had adopted the practice of paying priests leaving the priesthood years before Dolan took over. Most of the priests were not accused of wrongdoing, and the money helped them transition into their new lives, he said.
At least three priests accused of sexual abuse received payments when they left the priesthood before Dolan's arrival, according to the documents. Six more left under Dolan, with deals calling for them to receive $20,000 each.
Topczewski said the money covered the men's health care, but it also got "priests out quicker. That's what victims were asking for."
Another case shows just how difficult it was to get rid of priests who wouldn't go voluntarily. John C. Wagner was accused of making advances to students at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan when he was in campus ministry in the 1980s. Weakland tried in the 1990s to get Wagner to voluntarily leave the priesthood, but Wagner refused.
In 2005, as settlements with clergy sex abuse victims were piling up, Dolan wrote to the Vatican office in charge of the matter and recommended it kick Wagner out.
"The liability for the Archdiocese is great as is the potential for scandal if it appears that no definitive action has been taken," he warned, adding that. Wagner showed no remorse, and "his only concern has been his financial status."
Dolan said that if the Vatican agreed to dismiss Wagner, an archdiocese fund could pay for his needs until he was eligible for a pension. Dolan didn't receive a response until 2008, when he re-submitted his request along with details of new allegations against Wagner.
Archbishop Angelo Amato responded on behalf of the Vatican office and recommended Dolan ask Wagner to leave voluntarily, which Dolan did. Wagner's attorney rejected the request, saying the $20,000 payment that Dolan offered wouldn't cover the priest's expenses for the two years until his retirement. Wagner wasn't officially defrocked until 2012.
A working telephone number for him could not be found Monday, and he did not immediately respond to an email message.
Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee, Rachel Zoll in New York, Michael Tarm in Chicago, Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.; and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.