“The mission of the church in every age is filled with its challenges. We face one such challenge in the archdiocese today, but it’s not the first challenge that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has faced,” he said, “… my other predecessors had to face the Depression, and wars, and had to have immediately a confidence in people and in the faith that they shared. The mission of the church, therefore, is filled with challenges. We face one such challenge in our archdiocese as today, with the reorganization under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. So, I want to be very clear: the reorganization is happening because priest perpetrators sexually abused minors, going against everything the priesthood and the church represents.
“… Everything said today, or in any discussion of the impact of clergy abuse on the church, pales in comparison to the harm that has been done to the individual victims. The abuse was sinful and it was criminal. The actions of perpetrators were deplorable, and I, as an archbishop, am ashamed because of those actions.”
Opening the floor to questions, the archbishop and archdiocesan staff tried to explain what parishes, schools and other Catholic entities should expect for the following year.
Pension plans are separate
A webinar participant questioned the future of archdiocesan employee and priest pensions.
“The priest and the lay employee pension plans are separately held,” answered John Marek, archdiocesan chief financial officer. “Those are in a trust fund, they are multi-employer plans, which means that they’re not an asset of the archdiocese, they’re not part of this bankruptcy filing. The archdiocese is only one of over 200 contributing employers, so those pension funds are not part of this; they’re not subject to the reorganization.”
Another participant asked how lay people can support the archbishop during the Chapter 11 reorganization process.
“I would say to all those who are parish staff members and even those who are members of the staff here at the archdiocese, ‘Convey a confidence to those people who are contributors and supporters,’ to let them know that the work of the archdiocese, the work of the parishes, continues. The work of the ministries that they contribute to, that they donate to, go exactly for those purposes and the continuum will need to be funded. The catechistical approach, the … food pantries, the work of making sure that there is a local parish. All of those go directly to help support the church and its work.
“And lastly, to understand that we’re a family together. We do this and we go together through this reorganization, and to have a confidence – the confidence that I have – that we’re going to be a stronger church because of this,” he added.
Filing was not ‘delay tactic’
Addressing a rumor that the Chapter 11 filing was a delay tactic to protect Bishop Richard J. Sklba from the accusation that he transferred pedophile priests around, Archbishop Listecki said that it was not.
“What we’ve done is try to go through every option,” he said. “When I became archbishop of Milwaukee, the first thing that most of the reporters and media said were, ‘Well, are you going to go bankrupt?’ They shoved a (microphone) in front of me and they said, ‘Are you going to go bankrupt?’ I said we were going to do everything to avoid that. We were going to take a look at every option, and we have.
“We’ve gotten to a point now where our financial advisors – those people we’ve sought in terms of advice – have said, ‘Look, this is the only way we can go forward to ensure those two goals that we have,’ and so therefore certainly anyone who would offer that it was something else doesn’t understand the process or the difficulty we’ve gone through in order to get to this point,” he added.
For any future victims/survivors who may come forward as a result of the filing, Jerry Topczewski, Archbishop Listecki’s chief of staff, said that there is a process in place.
“My understanding will be that in the bankruptcy proceeding there will be a committee established for those who have claims against the (archdiocese), and in this case for victims/survivors, they will be represented, those who have come forward now, and any of those who will come forward now because of this proceeding.
“There will be some deadlines for that established by the court with no misgiving, whether they’re victims/survivors or some other creditor who has a claim against the archdiocese, where they will say you have until this date to make your claim known, so to speak. That’s part of the finality and closure of a Chapter 11 proceeding; (it) will give us that financial stability to move forward, so that will be one part of the bankruptcy process.”
Proceeding offers ‘fresh start’
Examining the bankruptcy situations of the other seven U.S. dioceses that have filed for reorganization, Topczewski has become familiar with the impending proceedings and what to expect.
“In this process as well, what we’ve seen in other dioceses is that a fund had been established as well for those who may have future claims who have yet to come forward, so that fund in this reorganization plan will be established, even though people might come forward in the future, beyond the bankruptcy proceeding,” he explained. “But what it does do is that it does eliminate the potential for lawsuits after we emerge from a Chapter 11 reorganization. That’s one of the things that gives you a fresh start in this proceeding.
“One of the ideas or goals, as we’ve said, has been, one, to treat victim/survivors equitably, so the idea isn’t to delay or to avoid; it’s to gather everyone together and bring some kind of fair compensation for all, and secondly, it is to continue the ministries of the archdiocese on stable financial footing,” he added.
‘Positive signs’ for the archdiocese
Archbishop Listecki explained how the “life of the church” would be affected by the court proceedings.
“Certainly there will be those who are distressed,” he explained. “I am distressed also by having this moment as part of our history of the archdiocese. But let’s take a look at where we have been and where we are going.”
The archbishop noted that there had been an increase in Mass attendance in the archdiocese after 10 years in which it had been declining.
“Now, (it’s) only a little over 1 percent or so, but it’s an increase in Mass attendance. That’s a positive sign,” he said.
“Secondly, it’s also true for schools. Across the nation Catholic schools have been declining at about a 6 percent a year average. Well, this year we’ve declined a little, a little over 1 percent we’ve declined. So, it’s another great sign, knowing the sacrifices that (have) to be made in order to send someone to a Catholic school, so I think these are positive signs.
“Hopefully, with the bankruptcy, what we’ll do is emphasize the fact that it’s going to be a new day, that we will now try to bring some closure and resolution to a situation that has been a part of us and a part of our past, and going forward, understanding the correctives that we have to make, but understand that we can do so with confidence as we go forward,” Archbishop Listecki added.