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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

The Cover-Up Habit

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It’s hard to sympathize with the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese’s claim that it could face financial ruin as a result of paying for its past misdeeds when it continues to try to cover up those misdeeds. For years, the church here had plenty of powerful co-conspirators helping them keep quiet about crimes against children.

Documents just made public in a California lawsuit settlement reveal that, in 1983, then-Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, a devout Catholic, advised the diocese to remove a priest accused of sexual abuse from the ministry “for about five years, and if no complaints come forth in that time perhaps he can be given another chance.”

That priest ultimately was accused of sexually abusing 10 teenagers. How many such cases by that priest and others could have been prevented if the church had taken responsibility in 1983 instead of privately conferring with the district attorney on how to cover its cassocked rear? Anyone who was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal in the mid-’90s, as I was, is aware of the local newspaper’s complicity with the church in covering up reporting about sexual abuse cases. We had just hired a new editor from the outside, Mary Jo Meisner. Marie Rohde, a talented reporter who covered religion, wrote a comprehensive series on sexual abuse of children by priests that included new information on the extent to which the Catholic Church, locally and nationally, had gone to cover up the crimes, paying millions of dollars in private settlements.

Before the series could be published, then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland and an entourage from the Milwaukee archdiocese met with Meisner and Rohde to try to suppress the series. The reason why other staff members knew about the content of that meeting is that Rohde was thrilled to be forcefully supported by her new editor. Meisner told the archbishop that she understood why the series made him uncomfortable, but that it was the newspaper’s job to report what it had learned.

Because Meisner had replaced an editor who was not known for such journalistic courage, the staff was excited to have an editor who would stand behind reporters. No one on the staff really knows what happened next. But that series never ran. The logical assumption is that when the archbishop did not get the answer he wanted from the editor of the newspaper, he went to someone higher up at the company.

That’s when Meisner found out she hadn’t really been hired to make journalistic decisions. Within months, Meisner began doing what she had been hired to do—downsizing a merged Journal and Sentinel, firing many of the most experienced, able reporters (including me) and retaining younger, cheaper ones.

Rohde survived the merger, but was removed from the religion beat and sent to the Siberia of covering suburban village boards. Oh, yeah. About eight years later, The Boston Globe wrote a series exposing the extent of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up within the Catholic Church. It won a Pulitzer Prize and sparked the national outrage that is still affecting the church.

Avoiding Responsibility
Instead of recognizing that the cover-up was as morally reprehensible as the crimes, the Milwaukee archdiocese has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into court to get it to come clean. When it has been sued by victims, the archdiocese has used hardball legal tactics, including blocking access to church records, conducting brutally aggressive depositions of victims and purposely delaying cases for years in an attempt to bankrupt victims and their families. Whenever the archdiocese succeeded in getting a case dismissed on any kind of legal technicality, it would sue the victims and their families for the costs. For years, the archdiocese was protected by courts in Wisconsin, which upheld a statute of limitations requiring victims of underage sexual abuse to file suits for damages before turning 35.

However, last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the church could be sued for fraud for not telling parishioners about priests with a history of sexual abuse before assigning them to ministries that put them in contact with children.

The only reason we learned last week about the egregious sexual abuse of another Milwaukee archdiocese priest was because he committed one of his crimes in California. A $16.65 million settlement in California included details of nine other cases involving the same priest in Wisconsin. Instead of the Milwaukee archdiocese reporting the information itself, Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote to priests warning them to prepare for more negative backlash when the facts were made public.

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference has opposed a bill in the Legislature that would remove the statute of limitations for victims of underage sexual abuse. Interestingly, so has retired District Attorney McCann. Apparently, covering up crimes is a difficult habit to break.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.