The Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which owes victims of pedophile priests (including one, Think Progress notes, who was accused of assaulting approximately 200 deaf children) $17 million has decided to put that money into a fund reserved for cemeteries and claims that to pay the victims what they're owed is a violation of the church's religious freedom. After all, if there's one thing we've learned about Jesus is that he would have likely also placed millions of dollars into an untouchable fund to avoid paying the victims of his followers. It's just the christly thing to do.
The archdiocese claims that the church has much to do before they pay any victim any money for anything. According to their religious guidelines, the church must maintain any and all burial places and mausoleums in perpetuity lest they fall into disrepair. The Archdiocese has been bankrupt since 2011 and in 2013 a court agreed that they had the right to transfer the money into an account meant for the upkeep of religious burial places, but the seventh circuit court of appeals has issued an important message to the church: Hell naw.
What's even more heinous than the fact that the church doesn't want to pay the victims the money they're owed (and Think Progress points out that the latest appeal isn't about paying anyone anything, the verdict just means that the money the church is hoarding can't only be used for cemetaries) is that the "burial places account" wasn't even created until after the archdiocese was told they needed to pay the victims and that other lawsuits against priests could "go forward." So they must not have been that worried about mausoleums then? But now, they're all about them.
From Think Progress:
[Timothy]Dolan, who is now a cardinal and the Archbishop of New York, wrote to the Vatican regarding the $55 million in funds that "[b]y transferring these assets to the Trust, I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability."
Awesome. Thought of everything! Except the court says that you can't really do that.
In rejecting this claim that the archdiocese has a religious right to spend the trust's funds on burial places and only on burial places, the Seventh Circuit offers several reasons why religious freedom cannot trump the rights of the archdiocese's creditors and those of its clergy's victims. Perhaps most significantly, the court holds that the archdiocese's religious liberty claim would fail even under the strictest level of constitutional scrutiny.
Drawing a comparison to a Supreme Court decision holding that religious objectors may not opt out of Social Security taxes, the court notes that federal bankruptcy law, like Social Security, "'serves the public interest by providing a comprehensive … system with a variety of benefits available to all participants' nationwide." Just as Social Security "aids those who have reached a certain age or are disabled, the Code aids those who have reached a certain financial condition and who need assistance repaying or recovering a debt."
No one yet knows whether the victims will be awarded any money, but the court is putting the church on the track there. I can't help but think, however, how shitty the victims must feel to not only have to go through the experience of coming forward and reliving the trauma of being molested by a priest and then being defrauded by the archdiocese. Solid work. Jesus would be proud.
Image of Timothy Dolan via Getty
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