No servant can serve two masters.
Those are the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. And yet how imperfectly have his followers taken them to heart. Throughout the history of Christianity, some of the most painful moments have been when church leaders cocked their ear toward Mammon when godliness would have dictated otherwise.
Other, more recent painful moments, especially for Catholic Christians, came when church authorities put institutional prestige ahead of justice and consideration for victims of sexual abuse by clergy members.
The damage done by the clerical abuse scandals to the Catholic Church, and to countless millions of its faithful, has been profound and worldwide. Although Catholic bishops and the Vatican have sought to atone and to reform the institutional practices that enabled the abuse, those efforts have often been admixed with less upright impulses.
Consider the case of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who once served as its prelate. Some of the most notorious cases of abuse took place there — well before Dolan was archbishop — and, as a consequence of legal settlements with victims, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, after Dolan had left to become archbishop of New York.
A charismatic personality, Dolan is the most recognizable face of the Roman Catholic faith in America. With much justification, Dolan is regarded as one of the good guys in this grim chapter, highly aware of the growing scandal and struggling to get a sluggish church hierarchy to address the problem.
Here is Dolan at his best, pressing the Vatican to act decisively:
“The liability for the Archdiocese is great, as is the potential for scandal if it appears that no definitive action has been taken. Our newfound awareness of the severity of damage caused by sexual abuse at the hands of clergy makes it impossible for us to ignore this situation or allow any longer the unresolved nature of this case.”
Much of Dolan’s correspondence was addressed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.
Yet while the public would like to see a hero emerge from his scandal — a stalwart in the hierarchy who fought relentlessly for the victims of the priests’ abuse, who put their needs before concerns for the church’s reputation or its finances — that person does not appear to be Dolan. Not quite.
A new collection of documents made public by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee shows that Dolan is emblematic of the decades-long struggle of the church to manage priests accused of sexual abuse.
The documents reveal Dolan in multiple, often conflicting roles: financial protector of the church’s patrimony, overseer and disciplinarian of priests, advocate for leniency toward pedophile priests who were aging and frail, leader wading through the processes of the church and civil and criminal courts. And, yes, he also attempted to soothe the pain of victims and survivors of the abuse, along with the outrage of parishioners.
In a statement upon the release of the documents, Dolan remarked that his encounters with victims/survivors and abusive priests were “some of the most difficult, challenging and moving events” of his more than six years in Milwaukee. Indeed, Dolan has reason to be proud of the mediation process by which nearly 200 survivors received settlements under his watch.
Yet in a June 2007 letter to the Vatican, Dolan requested permission to funnel $57 million from the archdiocese into a trust he had created one month prior. A little over a month later, the transfer was approved. That’s a swift decision from Rome, the same authority that often took years of dawdling to decide the fate of individual priests who abused.
“By transferring these assets to the Trust, I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability,” Dolan wrote.
Dolan maintains that the funds were set aside for perpetual care of Catholic cemeteries. The church’s harshest critics argue Dolan committed bankruptcy fraud. A court can settle the question of legality, but it’s hard not to regard this action as ethically suspect.
Another $90 million was transferred to individual parishes, separate legal entities. A judge has already ruled those funds are safe from being claimed by those suing the diocese in civil court for abuses.
The documents also show that consultants and attorneys had to intervene to maintain the right tone of humility and contrition on the part of the archdiocese. Public updates were edited to keep the churchmen from sounding too “self-forgiving” for past actions and “minimizing the issue.” A line in a draft communication from the archdiocese that apologized to priests was removed because, as an adviser pointed out, “this was about victims, not about priests.”
To read these documents is to see a worldly organization at work — massive, bureaucratic, self-interested. Dolan is but one man at work within it. A good man, more or less, and an energetic servant, but one with many masters.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at email@example.com.