Disturbing Documents: Milwaukee Materials Underscore Extent Of Church Privilege

Far from being persecuted, church officials in America enjoy a privileged status that all too often places them beyond the reach of the law.

We often hear from the Religious Right and the Catholic bishops that religious freedom is under attack in the United States. Sometimes even the word “oppression” is tossed about.

It’s especially ironic to hear the Catholic bishops make this charge, in light of some of the recent developments in the ongoing pedophilia scandal. A trove of documents released in Milwaukee this week show that, far from being oppressed, religious groups in America tend to be treated with kid gloves – even when engaged in criminal activity.

The documents show that then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan sought Vatican approval to move nearly $57 million in archdiocesan funds off the books because Dolan (who is now cardinal of New York City) knew that money would be targeted by the victims of abuse who were filing civil lawsuits.

I’m not an attorney, but to me this looks like a simple case of shielding assets, a practice that is illegal and in just about any other context would spark a criminal investigation.

But there’s more. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported, “In the decades before Dolan – now cardinal of New York – arrived in 2002, church leaders, including now-retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland, routinely moved pedophile priests from one parish or school to the next, shielding them from criminal charges, the records show.”

So it wasn’t just funds that were moved about – it was also priests whom church officials knew were molesting children. They were sent to different parishes and schools to prey on even more victims.

Top church officials’ practice of moving pedophile priests around like pieces on a chessboard is old news. How many of them have been punished by the secular arm of the law?

Precious few. Consider Weakland, for example. He retired in 2002 and wrote a memoir. At last report, he was living comfortably in Milwaukee with his expenses covered by the archdiocese.

A lot of people believe Weakland should have been subject to prosecution. In 1993, Weakland admitted in a court deposition that he shredded the weekly copies of reports of abuse by priests that he was given. In other words, he had evidence of criminal activity and destroyed it. That’s illegal. (It’s immoral too, but that’s another story.)

Imagine, for a moment, if a secular corporation had done these things. Imagine a nationwide company whose top leaders were handed solid evidence that some of their employees were guilty of sexual crimes against children. Now imagine that their response was to transfer these employees to other branches – without, by the way, alerting anyone at those other branches to the problem.

Imagine that executive vice presidents of this company destroyed evidence linking employees to child abuse and cooked their firm’s books to hide profits because they knew civil lawsuits were likely.

This company would be shut down. Its top leaders would be in prison. The only reason that hasn’t happened to the church in this case is that too many state officials, instead of enforcing the law, kowtow to a wealthy and powerful church.

I am reminded of a case from New Orleans in the early 1990s concerning a now-defrocked priest named Dino Cinel. Local officials knew Cinel had a collection of child pornography, material that it’s illegal to possess. Among them were homemade videos of Cinel engaging in sex acts with teenage boys.

Vanity Fair reported that Harry Connick Sr., who was at the time district attorney of Orleans Parish (county), was reluctant to charge Cinel despite a recommendation from his investigators that the office do so. Connick later told a local television reporter that he did not want to embarrass “Holy Mother the Church.”

This was a pattern that was to be repeated too often in the years to come. Some victims of abuse are finally getting a measure of justice through civil lawsuits, but to date, only a handful of church officials have faced criminal charges. One of them, Msgr. William Lynn of Philadelphia, was found guilty of child endangerment after he covered up and destroyed evidence of abuse; he was sentenced to three-to-six years in prison.

The recent document dump in Milwaukee shows that, far from being persecuted, church officials enjoy a privileged status that all too often places them beyond the reach of the law. They should stop whining – and the rest of us should get serious about making sure that all organizations in this country – religious and secular – are held to the same standard of laws.

P.S. "The Wall of Separation" will be on hiatus until July 8. Happy Independence Day!