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MILWAUKEE-PAYMENTS Jun-4-2012 (810 words) xxxn

Archdiocese cites charity, stewardship in payments to abusive priests

By Brian T. Olszewski
Catholic News Service

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (CNS) -- "Christian charity" and "sound stewardship" prompted the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2003 to pay "less than a handful" of priests who had sexually abused children at least $10,000 to seek laicization, according to Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for the archdiocese.

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 noted 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)," the minutes said. "Also, they remain on our health insurance until they find other employment."

The minutes were one of a series of documents filed by the creditors' committee in the archdiocese's Chapter 11 bankruptcy 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 told the Catholic Herald, Milwaukee's archdiocesan newspaper.

He said he was aware of only one man who received $20,000, but said he couldn't provide exact numbers because the files containing that information were in lawyers' offices as part of discovery motions in the reorganization. "I can't quantify it any more than just a handful of people."

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 that 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.

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 nonvoluntary 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."

Cardinal Dolan, who headed the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 2002 to 2009, is now archbishop of New York.

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 by the 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.

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.

He estimated that the salaries and benefits paid to the priests in 2003 were at least three to five times the amount the archdiocese paid the sexually abusive priests when they left.

- - -

Olszewski is the executive editor/general manager of the Catholic Herald in Milwaukee.


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