The Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a former priest who received money to leave the ministry following allegations of sexual abuse say that the payment and others were a form of charity meant to help men make a transition to a new life after the priesthood.
The archdiocese acknowledged paying suspected pedophile clergy after an abuse victims' group produced a court document Wednesday that mentioned a 2003 proposal to pay $20,000 to "unassignable priests" who agree to leave the ministry. The document from the archdiocese's bankruptcy proceedings includes minutes from a 2003 meeting of its Finance Council, which included then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, now a cardinal and head of the New York archdiocese.
Council members discussed how the church should handle sexual-abuse complaints against priests, a possible budget deficit and how to cut costs. The $20,000 payments were among the options mentioned.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests characterizes the payments as a payoff to priests who molested children.
"This was a signing bonus for signing papers that would be sent to the Vatican," said Peter Isely, Midwest director of SNAP. "They needed to have been fired. You don't pay someone who has committed a criminal act. You fire them. Period."
The archdiocese says similar payments were made to men leaving the priesthood long before allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the Catholic Church. Archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said the payments were a type of severance pay.
It made sense at the height of the clergy sex-abuse scandal to "move these men out of the priesthood as quickly as possible," and the money helped the men with the transition, Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, said in a letter sent to church members Thursday. But the archdiocese has since ended the payments, he said.
Wolf said she thought the last payments were made two or three years ago, based on archdiocese correspondence. The archdiocese paid out $90,000 to accused priests in the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, according to a letter Listecki sent to members that year. It said nine remaining clerics who had been restricted from the ministry because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor would be notified that financial assistance was ending.
Listecki also said future reports of sexual abuse would be referred to civil authorities.