Nine Catholic archdioceses around the country have filed for bankruptcy over the past decade, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In each case, this followed multimillion-dollar claims from victims sexually abused by priests and other Church employees.
Milwaukee’s case is different from all the others in one important way. The church there is playing legal hardball and trying to dramatically limit the claims of 570 people who say they were abused. Despite the bankruptcy, Catholic churches in Milwaukee are still open for worship.
It’s Mass at St. Vincent Pallotti church and about 200 parishioners sing, pray, and then watch a videotaped appeal from Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki. The church is beginning an annual fund drive. Listecki makes it clear that the money will go for programs like Catholic schools and adult day care and not be part of the year-long Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.
“Your gift will be segregated from other assets of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and used solely to support the appeal-funded ministry,” Listecki says.
Not far from St. Vincent Pallotti’s, 54-year-old Mark Salmon stands in his living room and talks about his early childhood. He describes it as a pretty innocent time. Salmon holds a picture of himself at age seven standing next to then-Milwaukee Braves baseball star Hank Aaron.
“I had, of course, my Milwaukee Braves jacket on,” Salmon remembers. “My glove pretty much like the one Henry Aaron had, which he signed for me, and I also had a book — The Henry Aaron Story — that he also signed for me.”
Salmon says his boyhood innocence and fondness for the Catholic Church ended about a year later, when his male Catholic grade school teacher sexually assaulted him. Later, a school official allegedly did the same, he says. Salmon has gone on to become a financial adviser with a family of his own. He says cover-ups by the archdiocese are what prompted him to file a claim in the bankruptcy case.
“I’m in it for the accountability,” he says. “I’m in it for all the other survivors, also. There are so many survivors that are not in the position that some of us are in to articulate their feelings and to demand accountability.”
Last week, the Milwaukee abuse victims won a significant procedural victory in federal bankruptcy court. Judge Susan Kelley ruled against motions by the church that would have blocked hundreds of victims from pursuing their claims.
Earlier, Kelley had ordered the archdiocese to encourage victims to file. So when the church attempted to knock out many of the cases, Arthur Budzinski was angered. Budzinski is one of about 200 former students at a Milwaukee school for the deaf who say they were abused as children.
“It’s almost like Archbishop Listecki lied,” Budzinski said, through his daughter Gigi, who interprets for him from sign language. “And he’s breaking the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not lie.”
Church spokeswoman Julie Wolf says Archbishop Listecki is trying to strike a balance between two competing needs. “And I think the Archbishop has always stated that our goal is to fairly compensate victims and continue our essential ministries of the church,” Wolf says.
Wolf says the Milwaukee Archdiocese has offered to set up a $300,000 therapy fund for abuse victims who would be removed from the bankruptcy case. Victims’ advocates say that amount would be far too small.
University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor Jonathan Lipson has been closely following the various diocesan bankruptcies. He explains the bitterness in Milwaukee.
“If you have people who for 15 years say we’ve been trying to get the church to recognize the harm that was done to us, and for 15 years the church simply refuses, you know, that can create a lot of animosity,” Lipson says.
Professor Lipson says the U.S. bankruptcy system is ill-equipped to handle cases that involve hundreds of people who say they were sexually abused. But for victims in Milwaukee, many who were abused decades ago, this is the court of last resort.