MILWAUKEE – While U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley offered an opinion in a hearing Friday, Jan. 11, that neither the First Amendment nor the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the more than $60 million dollars in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic Cemetery Perpetual Care Trust, Timothy Nixon, attorney representing the trust, offered assuring words for those who have invested in the trust.

“That money is still in the cemetery trust, and no one is saying anything different,” he told your Catholic Herald Tuesday, Jan. 15. 

Once Kelley’s “proposed finding of fact and conclusion of law,” as Nixon described it, is filed, the cemetery trust’s attorneys have 14 days to file objections to it. Then attorneys for the creditors’ committee, who contend that the cemetery trust is part of the archdiocese’s assets in its Chapter 11 reorganization, will have 14 days to file its response to those objections.

Then the matter goes to U.S. District Court where Kelley’s opinion could be totally accepted, totally rejected, or have some parts accepted and others rejected, he explained.

“There’s a long way to go,” Nixon said.

Nixon, an attorney with Godfrey & Kahn S.C., noted that in representing the cemetery trust, he is representing “a separate legal entity of which Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki is the sole trustee. It is governed by state law and has canonical obligation.”

This is the same point Archbishop Listecki made in a declaration filed with the court in July 2012 in which he delineated church teaching on Catholic burial, Catholic cemeteries and their care as sacred places, and the role of the cemetery trust, which was established under Wisconsin laws by then-Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan in 2007.

In his declaration, Archbishop Listecki stated that he acts “in conjunction and in conformance with the vision of the Roman Catholic Church. The Trust nevertheless functions as an autonomous body with independent decision-making authority. Under canon law, the property of public juridic persons is ecclesiastical property subject to the canons governing church property.”

He continued, “The Trust constitutes a separate and distinct legal entity from the Archdiocese, rather than a division or asset of the archdiocese. This separate status is reflected in all accounting related to the Trust, its independent creation and management, and its unique tax identification.”

In 1857, 14 years after the then-Diocese of Milwaukee was established, the first Catholic cemeteries became part of the landscape in southeastern Wisconsin. Since then, more than 500,000 people have been interred in those grounds.

Attorneys will be in Kelley’s courtroom Jan. 24 to learn the fate of the archdiocese’s objections to five claims brought against it in the Chapter 11 proceedings by victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse. On Dec. 13, the judge disallowed two claims, but sought further information on the other five.