I have sometimes criticized the behavior of bishops in their handling of the child sex abuse crisis, but I cannot agree with the criticism of Cardinal Dolan currently being made, regarding the payments that the Milwaukee archdiocese made to malefactor priests for their cooperation in the “laicization,” really dismissal from the clerical state, process.
By some accounts, the Milwaukee archdiocese, under then Archbishop Dolan, paid these priests the sum of $20,000 to agree to seek voluntary “laicization.” As the New York Times reported, “the archdiocese did make such payments to multiple accused priests to encourage them to seek dismissal, thereby allowing the church to remove them from the payroll.”
Note that last phrase—“to remove them from the payroll.” That is the critical phrase here. Every priest, even a priest under suspension, awaiting a canonical trial for child sexual abuse, has the right to support from the diocese. The 1983 Code of Canon Law says this in numerous places - Canon 281, Canon 384, Canon 1350.
This is sometimes called the right to “sustenance,” and it remains the right of the priest unless and until he is dismissed from the clerical state, something that can happen adversarially in a canonical judicial process, or something that can happen administratively at the priest’s request.
But until the dismissal is effective, the diocese has the obligation to provide, and the priest has this right to receive, financial support. With these canonical facts in mind, let’s hypothesize. Let’s lowball monthly support at $800 a month. That’s $9,600 a year. An adversarial canonical process, with appeals, could easily take two years. So the Milwaukee archdiocese under Dolan agreed to pay these malefactor priests two years of sustenance up front for their cooperation in a brief administrative process that would lead to their dismissal from the clerical state, and, importantly, end the diocese’s financial obligations to them under the Code of Canon Law. In an adversarial process, which was the accused priests’ right, they would have received the $20,000 anyhow, during the time it took for the process to run its course.
So, there is a clear explanation in church law for what Archbishop Dolan did. I don’t mean, with this explanation, to deal with other critical issues, like—were these men reported to the authorities? Did this quick process in any way help them to cover up what they did and go on to abuse? Since all of this happened under the Dallas Norms, and those Norms require reporting these men to the civil authorities, I am hoping that the answer to both of those questions is no, that the Norms were followed, that the civil authorities followed up, and that these former priests are on Meghan’s lists wherever they have gone.
I can criticize Cardinal Dolan for a few things—his semi-endorsement of the Ryan budget, the quasi-political rally he had at the cathedral in Milwaukee for Scott Walker in the middle of the recall campaign. But that just makes him partisan; it doesn’t make him someone who aids and abets child abuse. Far from it.
Nicholas P. Cafardi