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Bearing False Witness

Jul. 10, 2013
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You’d think lawyers suing a major religion that proclaims itself to be the guiding authority on moral behavior in every aspect of life would have the easiest job in the world.

Defendants wouldn’t even need to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They’ve already declared themselves the world’s foremost authorities on the truth.

So why have thousands of victims of sex crimes by Catholic priests around the country had to fight in the courts for years to get access to the facts about sexual predators and the church authorities who covered up their crimes?

It’s because the facts slowly emerging expose the completely false picture the church is still trying to present in court that puts protecting its enormous financial assets above accepting moral or legal responsibility for horrendous crimes.

This is after years of truly unholy, hardball legal tactics of lying and attacking victims, hiding behind legal loopholes and statutes of limitations and drawing out cases through endless legal stalling to intentionally bankrupt victims seeking compensation. 

The latest church documents made public in the lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee reveal thousands of reports of child sexual abuse, the irresponsible movement of known molesters from job to job with continued access to children, and a policy from the very top—that’s the pope—of delaying action against predatory priests for years even when local church officials tried to expel them.

Lurid details aside, perhaps the most damaging revelation legally was that former Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, now Cardinal of New York, sought Vatican permission to move $57 million into a special cemetery trust explicitly to protect the money from “any legal claim or liability.”

Ignoring the issue of right or wrong, which church officials were willing to do whenever their treasuries were threatened, if you want to take enormous amounts of money off your books in order to subvert federal bankruptcy laws, it’s not a good idea to put your intentions in writing.


‘Just Following Orders’ Is No Excuse

One important point on the side of the archdiocese is why should the Milwaukee archdiocese—and previously the archdioceses of Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities—be on the hook to pay for sex crimes and subsequent cover-ups that were known and covered up under policies explicitly directed by two immediate past CEOs of the world’s richest multinational religious corporation? That would be Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

But until attorney Jeff Anderson, the crusading lawyer representing hundreds of victims, can overcome all the legal obstacles to expand the case to reach those international kingpins, it’s the flunkies at the local archdioceses who are being hung out to dry.

“Just following orders” is no excuse for illegal actions. But pretending the pope and the Vatican weren’t directing every action by local church officials is totally dishonest, as confirmed over and over in the church documents.

Dishonesty begets dishonesty. The Vatican pretends it’s not responsible for crimes committed at its direction and through its negligence to protect the enormous wealth of the church worldwide.

To protect its own wealth (note what’s consistently most important), the Milwaukee archdiocese pretends legally that many of its priests aren’t really its priests and that millions of dollars in property and funds within the archdiocese don’t really belong to the archdiocese.

The archdiocese claims with a straight face that many of the priests who work in churches, schools and other jobs aren’t really priests of the archdiocese. So the archdiocese shouldn’t be liable for any of the crimes they may have committed.

So did these guys just wander in off the street and start celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and teaching classes? Well, no. But they work for different religious orders such as the Capuchins, Jesuits or Franciscans.

So don’t come whining to the archdiocese about their sex crimes just because crimes by religious order priests were included in archdiocese settlements elsewhere.

Even the archdiocese has trouble keeping its stories straight. For years, it warned parishioners it might have to sell the Cousins Center, the lakefront headquarters of the archdiocese, to settle abuse claims.

Since filing for bankruptcy, however, the archdiocese decided it doesn’t own the Cousins Center and tried to remove the property from its financial assets. It now claims the expensive property is owned by the board of a high school seminary that no longer exists.

Hey, it’s worth a try. Hard to believe, but church attorneys actually succeeded in removing the assets of more than 200 parish churches and schools by claiming they weren’t legally part of the archdiocese. Funny—Catholics always thought they were.

Mere legal fictions may pale next to the thousands of horrendous crimes against children committed over decades.

But self-appointed moral authorities shouldn’t violate their own God’s commandment against bearing false witness just to protect something so cheap and meaningless as their worldly riches.


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