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Newly Released Documents Show Milwaukee Archdiocese Shielded Pedophile Priests

July 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Newly released documents reveal how the Milwaukee archdiocese dealt with dozens of priests accused of sexually abusing children. Pedophile priests were moved from parish to parish, often protected from criminal complaints. Ray Suarez talks to Laurie Goodstein, who covers these issues for The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL: Now: new documents that show a history of sexual abuse problems in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Many of the cases go back decades, and most of the 6,000 pages of documents were released publicly for the first time yesterday. The records show pedophile priests were moved from parish to parish, often protected from criminal complaints.

The documents also contain files on more than 40 priests either dismissed or restricted, including the late Father Lawrence Murphy, believed to have molested as many as two hundred deaf boys. The documents also shine a light on New York Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan, formerly the archbishop of Milwaukee. Documents show he asked for the Vatican’s approval in 2007 to move nearly $57 million dollars off the diocesan books into a cemetery fund to protect church assets.

Dolan denies the claims as long discredited.

Laurie Goodstein covers these issues for The New York Times, and joins me now.

The current Milwaukee archbishop warned his people, prepare to be shocked.

Laurie, in these latest documents, were the details shocking and what do they do to fill in the story of clerical abuse in Milwaukee?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN, The New York Times: Well, you can trace cases by reading these documents, a long evolution sometimes, the first reports of parents coming into the chancery offices, and reporting that something has happened to their child, and the growing awareness as an increasing number of reports come in and church officials begin to try to grapple with what to do with this priest.

Sometimes, it’s a very long evolution, in some cases, more than two, three, even four decades in one case, where the priest is often sent for treatment. Then, he is reassigned, sometimes reassigned multiple times to many parishes. And those parishes in most cases, at least in earlier decades, were not informed that their priest had a problem with pedophilia.

Then, in the later decades, you see an attempt by church authorities to deal with the liability, the financial liability, and an attempt to say now it’s time to get this abuser out of the priesthood. And, in that step, you see correspondence between the archbishops of Milwaukee and the Vatican, where they’re seeking permission. Sometimes, it takes as many as six years before these cases are approved by the Vatican to remove a priest from the priesthood.

RAY SUAREZ: And that’s where the current cardinal archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, comes into the picture, when he was serving the church in Milwaukee. He gave one version of events. Do these documents give another?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, Cardinal Dolan has always said that he was attentive to victims and that he tried to move priests out of the priesthood. And the documents do show that he indeed did that behind — he was working on those cases behind the scenes.

But there’s one particular point that Cardinal Dolan had always resisted. He always said that he didn’t move assets of the archdiocese in order to shield them from lawsuits and legal liability.

But there is one particular letter that appears, as you mentioned, in 2007, where Cardinal Dolan is seeking permission from the Vatican to create a cemetery trust to move $57 million dollars off the books of the archdiocese into a separate trust. And in that letter, he says to the Vatican, I — in essence, he says, I think this is a good idea because it will protect the funds from legal liability.

So, that is a situation where Cardinal Dolan has said one thing and here you have a document showing something else.

RAY SUAREZ: You have been covering the lawsuits, the cover-ups, the attempts of the church not only in the United States, but worldwide, to handle this burgeoning scandal.

Are we closer to the end than the beginning? Are document releases like these part of what may allow the church to eventually close down this era in its problems?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, sex abuse victims are asking to see these documents. Many times, they don’t know until they see these documents that they were not, say, the only person reporting a particular priest. Or they don’t know how the church handled things, what they were saying behind the scenes about their cases.

So, seeing these documents is very much a vindication for a lot of these abuse victims. But what it does also is to bring — keep the issue going in many ways, and perpetuate it being in the public eye. And I think that the church would very much like to move beyond that.

RAY SUAREZ: The Milwaukee disclosures come during the same week as Pope John Paul II cleared one of the final hurdles toward being declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, a process that in relative terms he zoomed through.

Right now, the church is dealing with some of the legacies of his pontificate in financial scandals, in the ongoing trials concerning clergy abuse. Does this sully his legacy in a way that may give him problems before a canonization perhaps even as early as later this year?

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Well, it sounds like the case for canonization is moving ahead because what’s needed are verification of miracles and healings.

And the Vatican committee charged with that is finding those. There are victims who would, you know, prefer to see that Pope John Paul is not made a saint. But there have been saints made in the past who aren’t perfect. And those who are carrying forward the case of Pope John Paul say that may be the case here, that there — he will be honored and recognized for many of the good things he did, and we just won’t talk about the rest.

RAY SUAREZ: Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Thank you for having me.