An unforgettable trip to Florence, Italy, about a decade ago gave me my first real appreciation for the almost incomprehensible wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. After visiting the domed Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, completed in 1436, I could only compare it to the most stunning natural site I had ever seen. I wrote the thing was like the Grand Canyon turned upside down.
Such vast cathedrals with their gold-and-jewel-laden altars are really impressive until you stop and think about how primitive the living conditions for the church’s parishioners must have been outside those walls at the time.
That’s the larger context in which Archbishop Jerome Listecki publicly announced the Milwaukee Archdiocese would file for bankruptcy to try to protect assets of the local church from lawsuits brought by childhood victims of sexually predatory priests.
The moral questions about the honesty of the church, from top to bottom, continue to mount.
Listecki should not have been able to keep a straight face when he claimed the reason for filing for bankruptcy was to enable the church to fairly compensate victims. If Listecki had any interest at all in fairly compensating victims, he would not be trying to shield the overwhelming majority of the archdiocese’s $98.4 million in claimed assets from being used to pay those victims.
Or pretending the archdiocese does not own any of the property and assets of its schools and parishes because they are legally incorporated separately. That’s called trying to use a legal loophole.
Listecki also personally lobbied the Legislature to defeat a bill that would have opened a three-year window for all childhood victims to sue. Instead, the church continues to hide behind statutes of limitations to prevent justice for victims who have been reluctant to come forward for years.
Almost as shameful as priests sexually abusing children has been the church’s legal abuse of those children and their families when they file lawsuits seeking compensation. The church’s ruthless tactics included denying access to records, brutally attacking childhood victims personally in depositions, and repeatedly drawing out cases with every legal delaying tactic to run up enormous costs and bankrupt plaintiffs.
Whenever an expensive team of lawyers got a case dismissed on a technicality, the church would sue the victims and their families for all legal expenses.
A large number of church officials were complicit in covering up sexual abuse by priests because they were more concerned about the reputation and the wealth of the church than about the harm to children. Many were directly responsible for horrific abuse themselves when they knowingly shifted priests with a history of pedophilia to new positions giving them access to more children. Although Listecki condemns sexual predators within the church, he’s been far less explicit about church officials who aided and abetted them.
All that said, it is a sham to pretend local church officials were somehow acting on their own all over the world all at the same time.
We wouldn’t let any other morally corrupt, multinational, profit-making corporation -- BP, let’s say -- escape responsibility for crimes befouling us that were so clearly overseen from the top.
The Milwaukee Archdiocese fought to keep secret internal documents showing Pope Benedict himself, in a previous Vatican position overseeing abuse cases, shut down a Wisconsin church trial to defrock a priest who had sexually abused more than 200 boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis.
There is nothing unusual about wealthy global corporations trying to protect their riches by what President Richard Nixon’s corrupt Watergate aide H.R. Haldeman called “a modified, limited hang-out.” That means pinning the rap on the lowest level officials possible and limiting the financial damage to scapegoats in the branch offices.
As a result, the Milwaukee archdiocese and its financially struggling parishioners will have to pay the enormous damages resulting from the church’s sex abuse scandal on their own. All those eye-popping riches the Catholic Church has stored up for itself around the world over the centuries are safe. The church hierarchy can relieve the stress from all this legal turmoil by frolicking in their gold like Scrooge McDuck.
All that is required is to maintain the legal fiction that priests, bishops and archbishops were independent operators and were not employees of the worldwide church.
That is certainly news to priests, bishops and archbishops. If the Vatican is no longer responsible for what local churches do, we should plan a big celebration to ordain women priests and allow church officials to marry and enjoy healthy, sexual lives like other human beings.
The biggest difference between the Catholic Church and other wealthy, multinational, profit-making corporations is the product the church markets. That’s supposed to be morality.
Financial bankruptcy is a legal process to protect the church’s accumulated riches. It provides no relief for moral bankruptcy.
Joel McNally of Milwaukee writes a regular column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org