What Went Wrong with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Settlement with Survivors of Sexual Abuse?

St. John's Cathedral Milwaukee

St. John’s Cathedral Milwaukee

In comparison to the other settlements with abuse survivors in Catholic dioceses or archdioceses in bankruptcy, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s settlement is horribly skewed. Victims of priest sex abuse will receive an average of only $44,000 from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy deal after the Church’s lawyers get paid. This is shockingly less than the national average of $300,000 per victim in all other U.S. Catholic bankruptcy cases.

But the deal is just a proposal at this point. The survivors have to vote on the proposed plan on November 6th and a court hearing is scheduled for November 9th. Many victims and their advocates see the deal as an insult to the courageous survivors of sexual abuse and a reflection of Wisconsin laws that protect institutions from civil lawsuits.
The National Catholic Reporter outlined the history of litigation against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: “From the late 1980s until 1995, a number of civil lawsuits were filed against the archdiocese related to abuse. In 1995, a state Supreme Court decision ruled that the church could not be sued for negligence by victims of clergy sex abuse. Dozens of pending lawsuits were dismissed after that decision. For more than a decade, no new suits were filed. Then in 2007, the state’s high court ruled that if church leaders knew of an abusive priest and failed to act to protect victims, the church could be sued for fraud. That resulted in two dozen lawsuits that Listecki said prompted the bankruptcy filing. Victims and their lawyers charged that the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy to avoid the embarrassment of the public trials and potential jury awards.”

Since the Catholic priest abuse crisis became public around 2002, 12 archdioceses and dioceses have filed for bankruptcy. The Archdiocese of Portland was the first to file in 2004. None of the average settlements have been as unjust as those in Milwaukee. David Clohessy of Survivors of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) condemned the proposed Milwaukee settlement plan as “the largest mass betrayal of child sex abuse victims we’ve ever seen by one diocese. And it’s the most cunning exploitation of the advantages of bankruptcy rules by Catholic officials we’ve ever seen.”

Peter Isely, Midwest director of SNAP, noted that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has never acknowledged the validity of any of the 575 abuse claims. “Why the archdiocese was ever allowed to maneuver and manipulate its sex abuse secrets into federal bankruptcy in the first place remains a mystery,” he said. “Not only was the archdiocese flush upon filing, since entering the bankruptcy, the archdiocese has maintained that not a single one of the 575 victim cases are valid.”

Upon release of the settlement proposal, Archbishop Listecki wrote that “no amount of money could ever restore what was taken from these individuals” but added that settlement is the “best way to acknowledge the hurts of the past and try to reconcile for the future.” This is simply wrong. If Listecki was truly interested in healing he would have ensured the proposal was fair and just to the survivors.

It is clear from the way that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee litigated this matter from the beginning, and settled the claims in the end, that its only goal has been to protect the financial interests and reputation of the archdiocese at the expense of the victims.

Dumas Law Group has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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