Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan on Thursday publicly backed mediation to settle clergy sex abuse claims, a stance that was greeted with cautious optimism by victim advocates who had strongly urged that course.
Dolan said he preferred to resolve future abuse claims through an unspecified mediation process. Mediation is a course adopted in Minnesota, Michigan and other states.
“My vision of this process would include minimal involvement by attorneys, with money much more fairly spent on the just needs of those harmed,” Dolan wrote in his weekly column in the diocese’s Catholic Herald newspaper.
Dolan said he wanted victims and advocates to meet with archdiocesan representatives “without lawyers, to come to a response of pastoral, spiritual, emotional and restorative care.”
Dolan did not detail exactly when or how such a mediation process would proceed. Archdiocese spokesman Jerry Topczewski said Dolan wanted to start as soon as possible.
Dolan’s acceptance of mediation was a positive sign, said Peter Isely, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a group of clergy sex abuse survivors. But more needs to be known about the process and its timing, Isely said.
“What we are getting here is at least a promise of mediation,” he said. “That’s what’s important. But it’s really the details that count and what gets delivered, not what’s promised.”
Isely said Dolan’s broader plan for dealing with clergy sex abuse closely followed a recommendation from SNAP. Key points of the Dolan plan also included appointment of a new panel to advise him on abuse issues, reporting all details of “credible” clergy abuse claims to Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann and publication of details on the archdiocese’s finances.
Reports will be mailed to all 220,000 Milwaukee-area parishioners within the next four to six weeks, Topczewski said. They will include a section explaining the diocese’s finances, as well as a more detailed accounting of the $450,000 settlement of an abuse claim by a man against former Archbishop Rembert Weakland, Topczewski said.
“Contrary to the myth, we do not have tons of money, and what we do have is strictly designated only to be used for the purpose intended,” Dolan wrote in his column.
Dolan said he was grateful that SNAP pushed for mediation instead of further litigation. In meetings with SNAP, Isely said, Dolan has praised a mediation system used to resolve sex abuse claims against Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. Topczewski also said Dolan was favorably impressed with that model. Representatives of the abbey and victims negotiated financial settlements and apologies last year.
Dolan also again publicly apologized for child sex abuse by Milwaukee-area “priests, bishops and church personnel” and said he would meet with victims and advocates in three upcoming sessions, continuing a practice he started last year.
Lawsuit deadline nears
Dolan’s plan, “Reform, reconciliation, renewal,” touches similar themes of a plan offered to Dolan by SNAP three weeks ago. The SNAP plan sought a voluntary resolution program under the topics of “Repentance, restitution, reform and renewal.”
Dolan’s call for mediation comes as the deadline nears in Milwaukee County Circuit Court for a church response to a lawsuit on behalf of five alleged abuse victims. Plaintiffs in that case claim that they were abused as youngsters by the late Father George Nuedling, who served several parishes during his 45-year career in the 10-county Milwaukee Archdiocese.
At the same time Dolan agreed to an alternative dispute resolution process for future claims, he said the church had no choice but to seek dismissal “of any litigation (already) filed against it.”
Isely said that distinction was confusing. The archdiocese does have a choice of whether it wants to litigate current cases in court or outside the legal system, he said.
Topczewski said that the church was required to answer formal legal claims but that Dolan preferred mediation to settle them outside the courtroom. That would require the plaintiffs dropping their cases or the archdiocese winning their dismissal.
Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer representing the five plaintiffs suing the Milwaukee Archdiocese, said he welcomed Dolan’s call for mediation. Anderson said he would contact his clients and the Milwaukee SNAP group to see whether mediation could work in his cases.
“I’m happy to work with them instead of against them in a courtroom,” Anderson said. Any settlement would have to include efforts at prevention, healing and outreach on clergy sex abuse, as well as monetary reparations, he said.
Allegations against 39 priests
Dolan said the archdiocese knew of documented child abuse allegations involving 39 Milwaukee-area priests over the past 70 years. Fourteen of the 39 priests are dead, and none of the rest is in active ministry, Dolan said. Three have left the priesthood, and four are in the process of leaving the priesthood, he said. Eight of the 39 priests are inactive, another is disabled, and nine are without assignment and under full restrictions, Dolan said.
The mediation effort proposed by Dolan would cover the roughly 250 parish priests serving the Milwaukee Archdiocese, as well as deacons and other diocese employees, Topczewski said. But it would not cover priests, nuns and other members of religious orders not directly under the purview of the archdiocese, Topczewski said. However, he said Dolan hoped such a model would be also followed by Milwaukee-area religious orders.
Dolan also announced appointment of a new Diocesan Review Board to examine future sex abuse claims and advise him “on all aspects of sexual abuse cases,” past and future.
The members of the board are: Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, who leaves her office next week; Hannah C. Dugan of Milwaukee, a Legal Aid lawyer; Charles Lodl, a Mequon psychologist with experience in sex abuse therapy; Donald J. Schuenke of Elm Grove, former chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.; and the Rev. James E. Connell, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus and St. Clement’s parishes in Sheboygan.
“The horror of this sin, this sickness, this crime of abuse of our youth calls the church and all society to genuine reform,” Dolan wrote.