The dead in Milwaukee’s Catholic cemeteries rest in peace as they await Christ’s second coming. The living are less content. Hundreds of sexual abuse victims want the city’s bankrupt archdiocese to pay for their pain.
This Monday, a battle between the Milwaukee Archdiocese and victims filing bankruptcy claims reached the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Attorneys for the abuse victims demand money from the archdiocese’s $55 million cemetery trust fund. Archdiocese officials say that money belongs only to the buried.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan created the trust fund in 2007 while serving as Milwaukee’s archbishop. Sexual abuse victims filed claims to the fund last year, but U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa dismissed the lawsuit in bankruptcy court.
The victims’ lawyers said Monday that Randa had no right to dismiss the suit because of his conflict of interest. The judge’s parents, siblings, and in-laws are buried in cemeteries controlled by the archdiocese. Trust fund attorney Brady Williamson downplayed the judge’s possible bias. He said Randa bought those sites almost four decades ago and hasn’t touched them since.
Catholic doctrine requires great respect for burial grounds. Attorneys for the trust fund explained in a brief to the appeals court, “the soul separates at death to meet God, awaiting reunion with its body on the last day.”
David Hains of the Charlotte, N.C., diocese called caring for cemeteries a way to align with Scripture. Catholics hope that “when Christ returns, we, the living people, have been good stewards of the earthly remains of the people whom Christ is coming to collect.”
According to lawyers for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protects the $55 million fund and its sacred purpose. The 1993 law guards religious exercise from government interference unless the government can prove a “compelling interest.” Even then, the government must use the “least restrictive” means possible to achieve that interest.
The victims have a committee to represent them in court, and their attorneys say RFRA doesn’t apply here. Their requests for trust fund money may interfere with the archdiocese, but the committee and its interests are not government.
Can the Milwaukee Archdiocese justify its full protection of the trust fund? No one seems to know how much it spends on cemeteries in the city. Williamson couldn’t give any numbers in court on Monday. Victims’ attorney Marci Hamilton said the information might exist if Randa hadn’t dismissed last year’s case so quickly.
Though it could be months in coming, the appeals court opinion may affect Catholic churches across the nation. Many dioceses have trust funds like the one for Milwaukee’s cemeteries. This case could make those private accounts more vulnerable to lawsuits, especially when people are upset or injured.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Archdiocese has a plan to minister to abuse victims. In a February letter, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki recognized a church duty “to love and care for those who were harmed.” The plan promises unlimited therapy, bankruptcy payment, and donation of all “unrestricted archdiocesan assets” to survivors of abuse by city priests.
According to the latest estimates, the plan would only compensate 125 victims with $4 million. As many as 575 victims have filed claims against the church.