In June of 2002, Dolan was appointed archbishop of Milwaukee after his predecessor, Rembert G. Weakland, admitted a confidential settlement of $450,000 to a man who accused Weakland of sexually assaulting him in 1979. In contrast to Weakland, Dolan was a known theological conservative with the trust of the Vatican and, despite questionable management of sexual abuse scandals in his previous position in Saint Louis, he was tasked with cleaning up the mess.
From the start, Dolan positioned himself as a victim’s advocate: “… [i]t is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the situation, and the suffering that victims feel, because I’ve spent the last four months being with them, crying with them, having them express their anger to me.” His response to those tears and anger, however, foreshadowed events of this winter, when Dolan had consistently argued that the church is above the law.
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In the case of the pedophile priests, Dolan almost immediately set about exploring financial incentives that would encourage them to step down and fade away into the community. He emphatically denied in 2006 that this was the case. But during subsequent bankruptcy proceedings for the Milwaukee archdiocese, public documents showed that Dolan had discussed payout options with his finance committee as early as 2003. Now email from Julie Wolf, communications director for the archdiocese, confirms that pedophiles were paid up to $20,000 apiece in exchange for quietly relinquishing their positions in the church.
Peter Isely is Midwest director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a resident of Milwaukee. Isely expressed outrage at the newly confirmed payoffs, which his organization has long alleged despite Dolan’s denial. “This is as ludicrous as a school board, instead of firing a teacher for criminal acts against children, calling the police and revoking his license to teach, instead saying that they had to pay the child molester tens of thousands of dollars to hand over their license to the board.”
In 2006, serial molester Father Franklyn Becker admitted that he had been paid $10,000 for signing “laicization papers” renouncing priesthood. At the time, Dolan insisted that the payment was to cover health care expenses. “For anyone to assert that this money was a ‘payoff’ or occurred in exchange for Becker agreeing to leave the priesthood is completely false, preposterous and unjust.” Minutes from the 2003 Finance Committee meeting suggest otherwise. Payouts to pedophiles like Becker were to be on top of pension, salary and health care benefits, and had no strings attached.
Since moving to New York and taking over leadership of the Catholic Council of Bishops, Dolan has leveraged his position to advance a set of priorities based on conservative theology, anti-reproductive rights and anti-gay rights in particular. He has been a vocal and visible opponent of comprehensive health care access and marriage equality, arguing, essentially, that religious freedom operates at the level of institutions and trumps civil rights law. His position as cardinal gains him not only the ear of the Catholic laity, but of the White House. Last November, for example, a meeting between Dolan and Obama was described as “one among many meetings with officials from the Catholic Church and the administration.”
In this fight, Dolan has had a strong ally in Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. Like Dolan, Donohue appears more concerned with protecting the Catholic church than past and future abuse victims. In March, Donohue said that the Catholic church had been too easy on victims, “too quick to write a check,” and should instead “fight them one by one.” In 2011, Dolan thanked Donohue for a press release that, among other things, called SNAP a “phony victims group.” In January, he scorned a gathering of victims and advocates in Boston as “the professional victims lobby” and “a pitiful bunch of malcontents.”
Like Dolan, Donohue is a staunch Vatican loyalist, who has played a fierce and vocal role in what are being called the Vagina Wars. He launched a boycott of “The Jon Stewart Show” after Stewart displayed an image of a manger blocking a vagina that the League called hate speech. Delta Airlines compliantly pulled their advertising. Donohue’s professions of horror at the image are matched only by the “horror” that Dolan expressed at the “strangling nature” of Obama’s narrow contraceptive exemption for Catholic churches.
But will the Vagina Wars be sufficient distraction from Dolan’s history of enabling abusers? That remains to be seen. In a 2011 “60 Minutes” interview, Dolan himself said that the abuse scandal needs to haunt the church for some time to come. Perhaps, he should watch what he asks for.