Ex-priest: Archdiocese payment helped in new life

GRETCHEN EHLKE Associated Press Published:

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- The Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a former priest who received money to leave the ministry following allegations of sexual abuse say the payment was a form of charity meant to help men transition to a new life following the priesthood.

The archdiocese acknowledged it paid suspected pedophile clergy to leave the priesthood after an abuse victims' group produced a court document that references a 2003 proposal to pay $20,000 to "unassignable priests" who agree to leave the ministry. The document from the archdiocese's bankruptcy proceedings includes minutes from a 2003 meeting of its Finance Council, which included then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now a cardinal and head of the New York archdiocese.

Council members discussed how the church should handle sexual abuse complaints, a possible budget deficit and how to cut costs. One proposal offered $20,000 to "unassignable priests" who agreed step down from the ministry.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests characterizes the payments as a payoff to priests who molested children.

"This was a signing bonus for signing papers that would be sent to the Vatican," SNAP Midwest director Peter Isely said. "They needed to have been fired. You don't pay someone who has committed a criminal act. You fire them. Period."

The archdiocese says similar payments were made to men leaving the priesthood long before allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in the Catholic church. Archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said the payments are a type of severance pay.

"In a sense, it was a sense of charity to help those men transition from the clergy state to the lay state," Wolf said. As a church, Wolf said officials have a responsibility not only to victims of clergy abuse, but to those accused of abuse.

"The church is not giving this money, saying it's acceptable," she said. "It's our calling as Christians to be forgiving."

Wolf said there is no formal policy on offering the payments to departing priests, but referred to it a practice.

Jerome A. Wagner said he accepted $20,000 from the archdiocese "because it was time to move on" after he was accused of assaulting a minor. Wagner was never criminally charged, but the archdiocese has acknowledged the accusations against him.

"I viewed it as a charity payment on their part to help me get along," Wagner said. "I just viewed it as help for me to readjust to a new way of life."

Wager said he initiated the process to leave the church with the Vatican and was told by the archdiocese he would receive $10,000 at the beginning of the process and $10,000 when it was over.

Wagner used the money to attend a mortuary school in Illinois. He graduated in 2004 and is a licensed funeral home director in Fond du Lac, the same community where he left the priesthood in 2002.

Because the process of leaving the priesthood can take several years, Wolf said the payments to accused priests are meant to quickly move them out of the ministry and save costs because a priest's salary alone can be about $55,000 a year.

The archdiocese acknowledged in 2006 that it gave $10,000 to former priest Franklyn Becker to help pay his health insurance until he became eligible for Medicare.

Dolan, who was archbishop when the payment was made, issued a strong statement saying it was not a "payoff" and the suggestion was "completely false, preposterous and unjust."

Dolan asked then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2003 to defrock Becker after allegations of repeated sexual abuse of children that dated back to at least 1970. Dolan wrote the letter about two weeks after Becker was arrested in California in connection to a sexual assault there in the 1970s. Becker was removed from the priesthood in 2004.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.