Judge Asks About Cost of Milwaukee Cemeteries
Federal judges on Monday peppered attorneys with questions about how much the bankrupt Archdiocese of Milwaukee spends to maintain its cemeteries and whether there is a strong interest in making maintenance funds available to compensate victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Lawyers representing clergy sexual abuse victims want about $55 million in a cemetery trust fund to be made available to compensate their clients. A lawyer for the trust fund said the Catholic faith requires the money to be used to maintain cemeteries.
A federal judge in Milwaukee previously ruled the fund off-limits, saying it was protected by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and First Amendment freedom of religion. A decision in the case could have a broad impact on other cases involving gay marriage, health care and religion.
Judge Joel Flaum of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago asked the attorney for the trust fund whether court documents show how much the archdiocese spends to maintain its cemeteries. Attorney Brady Williamson said they don’t. Earlier Judge Robert Dow had asked whether all $55 million was needed. Attorney Marci Hamilton, who represents clergy sexual abuse victims and others owed money by the archdiocese, said it was impossible to say because the lower court judge ruled before hearing any evidence.
The trust fund has been a focal point of the Milwaukee archdiocese’s increasingly bitter and contentious bankruptcy case. Sexual abuse victims believe New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan created the fund to hide money from them when he was archbishop of Milwaukee. Church leaders maintain creation of the trust was a mere formality because the money was donated to care for the archdiocese’s cemeteries and always used for that purpose.
Hundreds of sexual abuse victims have filed bankruptcy claims against the archdiocese, and without the trust money, it has relatively few assets. A proposed bankruptcy reorganization plan would provide about $4 million to compensate about 125 victims, but it would give nothing to many more.