Files released by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Monday revealed that in 2007, the diocese's archbishop at the time, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, requested permission from the Vatican to move nearly $57 million into a cemetery trust fund in order to protect the assets from victims of clergy sexual abuse who were demanding compensation.
Cardinal Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, has in the past emphatically denied seeking to shield church funds as archbishop of Milwaukee, and he reiterated in a statement on Monday that these were "old and discredited attacks."
However, the files released Monday contain a letter he wrote to the Vatican in 2007, in which he explained that by transferring the assets, "I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."
The Vatican moved swiftly to approve the request, the files show, even though it often took years to remove known abusers from the priesthood.
Abuse victims demanding transparency and accountability have long pressed for the release of the documents, and the victims' lawyers had asked a judge to compel their release. One day before a judicial hearing in April, the archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome E. Listecki, announced his intention to release the documents.
Archbishop Listecki released a letter last week warning Catholics in his archdiocese that the documents could shake their faith and trying to explain the actions of church leaders while offering apologies to victims.
"Prepare to be shocked," he wrote. "There are some graphic descriptions about the behavior of some of these priest offenders."
The files include documents from the personnel files of 42 priests going back 80 years, as well as the legal depositions of two former Milwaukee archbishops, Rembert Weakland and Cardinal Dolan, and a retired auxiliary bishop, Richard J. Sklba. Cardinal Dolan served in Milwaukee from 2002 until 2009.
Milwaukee harbored some of the nation's most notorious pedophile priests, including the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who a church therapist assessed as having molested as many as 200 deaf boys during his two and a half decades teaching and leading St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., and the Rev. Siegfried F. Widera, who faced 42 counts of child abuse in Wisconsin and California. Father Murphy died in 1998, and Father Widera committed suicide in Mexico in 2003.
In his letter, Archbishop Listecki said that the documents showed that 22 priests were "reassigned to parish work after concerns about their behavior were known to the archdiocese," and that eight of those "reoffended after being reassigned."
Advocates for abuse victims contended that the archdiocese was still withholding the files on dozens more known abusers, including priests, deacons, nuns, lay schoolteachers and choir directors. The files do not include documents on many known priest offenders who were members of religious orders, like the Capuchins, but who served in the Milwaukee archdiocese, according to the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group for victims.
Cardinal Dolan was deposed about his handling of abuse cases and the assets of the archdiocese in February, just before he left for Rome for the conclave to elect a new pope. A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan said at the time that he had "cooperated fully" in the deposition and was eager to talk about the "good work and progress that took place to ensure the protection of children."
The release of the documents comes amid a bitter standoff in bankruptcy court between the Milwaukee archdiocese and 575 men and women who have filed claims against it asserting that they were sexually abused by priests or other church employees.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, saying it was the best way to compensate the victims and resolve the controversy. It became the eighth Catholic diocese in the United States to do so. Since then, negotiations between the two sides in Milwaukee have broken down; the church has argued that many of the 575 cases are invalid, while lawyers for the victims have accused the church of hiding assets to avoid using them to compensate abuse victims.
Cardinal Dolan's moves involving church assets have come under particular scrutiny. Lawyers for the victims said the documents would prove that he transferred $130 million from the church's books -- about $55 million in a cemetery account, and $75 million in an investment account -- to shield the money from abuse victims. The lawyers noted that the transfers were made in 2008, a year after the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision that in effect lifted an unusual longstanding ban on sexual abuse lawsuits against the church.
"Malarkey!" Cardinal Dolan responded on his blog in New York. He said that the allegation that he had tried to "hide" assets from victims was "groundless gossip."
"Lord knows I've made mistakes," he wrote, "but 'hiding' $130 million is hardly one of them!"
He explained that on the advice of his finance counsel, he had transferred $70 million from the archdiocese's books into a separate account because it belonged to the parishes, not the archdiocese. He did not address the $55 million transferred into the cemetery trust fund.
Last week, both Archbishop Listecki and former Auxiliary Bishop Sklba tried to get out ahead of the documents' release by posting letters on the archdiocese's Web site. They invoked the same theme as many other church officials: that the church's negligence reflected a broader lack of awareness in society in those decades about the sexual abuse of children.
Archbishop Listecki wrote that he did not want to make excuses, but that church officials had been relying on medical professionals for advice, and that those doctors and therapists were "seemingly more concerned about 'Father' than about the children." He said the documents would reveal "the progression and evolution of thinking on this topic."
However, the Rev. James O'Connell, a priest in the Milwaukee archdiocese who has helped form a new group called Catholic Whistleblowers, said in an interview that he did not find this claim credible. "I was in high school in the 1950s, I graduated in June of 1960, and I learned about statutory rape in high school," he said. "An adult having sexual activity with a minor is a crime. We knew about it then, so you can't claim that social thought changed."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.