ST. FRANCIS – “Christian charity” and “sound stewardship” are what prompted the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2003 to pay some priests who had sexually abused children at least $10,000 to seek laicization, Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, told your Catholic Herald June 1.

Topczewski was responding to questions that arose May 30 regarding the minutes of the March 7, 2003, Archdiocesan Finance Council meeting in which council members raised the matter that “currently unassignable priests are receiving full salaries and are budgeted under the Vicar for Clergy. There is a proposal to reduce their benefit to be the same as the current pension benefit, $1,250 per month and also offer $20,000 for laicization ($10,000 at the start and $10,000 at the completion of the process). Also, they remain on our health insurance until they find other employment.” 

The minutes were an exhibit accompanying a motion filed by the creditors’ committee in the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, seeking to have $35 million from what was the Parish Deposit Fund (PDF) considered archdiocesan assets, contending that the archdiocese had “sheltered” those funds so that they could not be considered part of the estate in the reorganization.

“This is taken and characterized as if every priest who ever abused a child got a payout to leave the priesthood. Not true. It’s less than a handful of guys who received anything,” Topczewski said, noting he was aware of only one that received $20,000, but said he couldn’t provide exact numbers because the files containing that information were in the lawyers’ offices as part of discovery motions in the reorganization. “I can’t quantify it any more than just a handful of people.”

Nothing sinister

Topczewski took issue with how the news media depicted the proposal by the finance council.

“The media has mischaracterized this as payoffs based on Peter Isley (Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and SNAP statements that were bombastic kind of attempts to make it all look like it was something sinister, under the table. It was not,” Topczewski said. “This was proposed on advice of lay men and women of the finance council – respected leaders in the community who advised that we need to do something to get the budget under control.”

Because it was “a monetary question,” Topczewski said, it was expected that it would arise in the finance council rather than in one of the archdiocese’s other councils.

“That’s what they’re talking about in the finance council meeting: Our expenses are rising because of the costs associated with clergy sexual abuse. Why are we paying these guys full salary? And how long is it going to take before they’re off the payroll and out of the priesthood?” he said.

Act of charity

Topczewski cited the case of Franklyn Becker as an example of “why this wasn’t sinister or a payoff or quid pro quo.”

“Becker didn’t voluntarily participate in laicization; he was a non-voluntary laicization. At the time, there was a gap between his age and the time he would be eligible for Medicare,” the chief of staff said. “Out of charity, now Cardinal, then-Archbishop, (Timothy M.) Dolan said we will provide the payment one time, $10,000 — the approximate amount it would take to cover emergency medical insurance until he can go on Medicare.”

Topczewski noted that the payment to Becker has been posted on the archdiocesan website in a chronology of the former priest’s case, and that it was reported in news media in 2006.

“I’m paraphrasing, but Cardinal Dolan says, ‘To say this was a payoff is preposterous; this is charity, and if people don’t like it or want to criticize me for being charitable, so be it,’” Topczewski said.

Mischaracterization by news media

He called the news media’s recent characterization of Cardinal Dolan “completely unfair because he was doing something that was asked of him by the same people today who are criticizing him.”

“(We were) buying them off from what? The benefit to us was financial. We were not buying anyone off. We were saving money. It’s total mischaracterization of what happened. We were saving money. Money was provided out of charity to people who needed that assistance to move back into the lay state,” Topczewski said.

He said that the decision, in addition to demonstrating Christian charity, was an example of “sound stewardship,” which is what people asked Cardinal Dolan to do.

“SNAP was the most vociferous, saying these priests should be defrocked. The church responded; we moved them out of the priesthood quickly. We did it inexpensively, compared to what it would have cost if we didn’t do it that way. If we had taken another route, it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars more,” Topczewski said, estimating that the salaries and benefits paid to the priests in 2003 were at least three to five times the amount what the archdiocese paid the sexually abusive priests when they left.

He noted that while people did not like church money being used to support sexually abusive priests, church law (Canon 195) requires the church to provide that support.

“Even a priest who has committed such a horrible crime is entitled to support, and the archdiocese is still responsible for them,” Topczewski said.

Parishes invest wisely, as they see fit

Noting that parish administrators are required by church law (Canon 1284) to “wisely invest funds,” Topczewski said the archdiocese created the PDF more than 40 years ago in order to give parishes an opportunity to pool their money and get the best return on their investments.

“It always was the parish’s money. It remains the parish’s money. It was always held separate and distinct, never was mingled. Every parish had its own account under this umbrella. Banded together to get a better return on investment and safer investment and it provided pastors cover from – they’re not investment managers – a lot of pressure,” he said. That “pressure,” he explained, might come from an influential parishioner who wanted a pastor to invest parish funds in his or her pet project, even though the priest didn’t feel comfortable doing so. The PDF provided the pastor and his finance council a viable investment option, but participation was not mandatory, Topczewski said.

In 2005, the archdiocese, due to a 40 percent reduction in staff, determined it could no longer operate the PDF, he said. The Southeastern Wisconsin Parish Investment Trust (SWPIT), managed by U.S. Bank, was formed. When the PDF was dissolved and prior to the being formed, money invested by the parishes was returned to the parishes.

“When we returned investments to the parishes, not all parishes moved to the new trust. Some parishes began participation; some have left. It’s free, separate, distinct as you can make it. Parishes can invest in that; they can invest on their own,” Topczewski said. “No requirement, no mandate. These are parish monies from the generosity of the faithful of that parish invested by that parish, held distinctly and separately, returned to the parish who was their rightful owner, never held by the archdiocese.”

Attorney responds

In a nine-page letter dated May 18, 2012 and sent to Kenneth Brown, one of the creditors committee’s attorneys, Daryl L. Diesing, writing on behalf of Whyte Hirshboeck Dudek – the archdiocese’s Chapter 11 counsel – responded to the creditors’ motion to have the $35 million PDF considered part of the estate.

Terming the creditors committee motion “frivolous” and stating that the allegations “could involve a tremendous waste of the estate’s resources if the committee presses forward with them at this stage,” Diesing noted that even if the claims had merit, the statute of limitations had expired.

“… any reasonable person or creditor should have known that the archdiocese no longer had in its possession the monies owned by others at the close of the June 30, 2005 fiscal year…” he wrote, noting that the “relevant information has been publicly available for years.” Information regarding the PDF has been posted on the archdiocesan website since 2001.

Canonical duty to ‘shelter’

Diesing also addressed the use of the word “shelter” in the Finance Council minutes and in the creditors committee motion.

“The only argument that the (creditors committee) has is that trying to ‘shelter’ funds is inappropriate. However, a common definition of shelter is ‘to protect.’ Here, the archdiocese had been receiving funds from parishes that it had a canon law duty to protect,” he wrote. “It cannot be fraudulent to honor that obligation to other juridic persons by the open and public return of those funds or the creation of another entity that would emphasize the rights of all concerned.”

After delineating a series of points as to why the motion had no legal footing, Diesing noted that it would also violate the 1983 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

“… the parish deposit fund model is utilized by dioceses across the country. That is not a coincidence. The model has a deep tradition in the Catholic faith and canon law. Any attempt to use federal law to make the Original Parish Trust money available to creditors would certainly be doomed to fail because the government’s attempt to force such a result would constitute a RFRA violation,” he wrote.

Topczewski described the motion as “a distraction” that hinders the completion of the reorganization.

“When you take something that is so obvious to anyone who looks at it and say, ‘Now we’re going to argue about that,’ that costs money – lawyer fees on both sides, which we pay – to fight about something that is clearly not contestable,” he said. “One, it costs us money we don’t have and two, it wastes time. It prevents the case from moving forward.”