U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa has ruled that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee can shield $57 million from creditors in sexual abuse settlements because the money is in a fund designated for maintaining cemeteries. Judge Randa says the money is shielded in accordance with the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedoms.
The money in the fund was in dispute because the Archdiocese of Milwaukee recently filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy filing was largely, if not entirely, caused by the amount of money the Archdiocese owes in settlements to victims of the church’s sexual abuse. According to Think Progress, over 45 Milwaukee priests face sexual abuse accusations. One priest has been accused of molesting over 200 deaf boys.
Ordinarily, $57 million in assets would be seized during a bankruptcy filing. But Judge Randa Ruled that the cemeteries are sacred to followers of the Catholic Church. As sacred sites, Randa says, funding for them is shielded from the government in accordance with the church’s free exercise of religion.
“The care and maintenance of Catholic cemeteries, cemetery property, and the remains of those interred is a fundamental exercise of the Catholic faith,” Randa said. “If the Trust’s funds are converted into the bankruptcy estate, there will be no funds or, at best, insufficient funds for the perpetual care of the Milwaukee Catholic Cemeteries.”
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The law Randa is invoking, which states that government cannot put a “substantial burden” on a religious institution, comes with an exception. The government may place a substantial burden on a religious institution if the burden is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” But Randa ruled that this exception does not apply in the church’s bankruptcy case, saying the “interests advanced by the bankruptcy system are not compelling.”
Sexual abuse advocates are arguing against the ruling, saying that the money was transferred to the cemetery fund by former Archbishop Timothy Dolan in an effort to protect the money from legal pursuits. These abuse advocates may be on to something. In 2007, Dolan wrote a letter to the Vatican saying that transferring the funds would lead to “an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.”
Randa’s ruling sets a dangerous precedent for people or organizations seeking settlement money from religious institutions in the future. By ruling that religious institutions have the right to decide what money is necessary, and therefore protected, to freely exercise their religion, Judge Randa gives these organizations the right, through accounting tricks, to shield any amount of money they wish to from the public.
The sexual abuse victims of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee already know this all too well.