Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Cardinal Dolan’s cemetery deal smacked down

Holy Cross Cemetery, Milwaukee
Holy Cross Cemetery, Milwaukee

Holy Cross Cemetery, Milwaukee

Back in 2007, when he was still Archbishop of Milwaukee, Cardinal Timothy Dolan asked the Vatican for permission to transfer a $55-million fund for the maintenance of its cemeteries into a special trust. Dolan’s request came just a few weeks before the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a ruling that allowed victims of sex abuse to sue the archdiocese. Seventeen days after the ruling, the Vatican approved the request.

When this move came to light two years ago, Dolan, now ensconced as Archbishop of New York, was roundly criticized for seeking to deny the victims their due. Denouncing what he termed “old and discredited attacks,” he dismissed the idea “that establishing a perpetual care fund from money belonging to cemeteries and designated for that purpose – as required by state law and mandated by the archdiocesan finance council – was an attempt to shield it from the bankruptcy proceedings.”

Given that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee declared bankruptcy four years after the trust was created, this was not, strictly speaking, a fib. Strictly speaking, the point of creating the trust was, as Dolan put it in his letter to the Vatican, to provide “an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.”

After the archdiocese declared bankruptcy, the bankruptcy judge disallowed Dolan’s move, making the funds subject to the claims of creditors. The archdiocese then went to federal court, where U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa quickly ruled that the archdiocese had a religious right to shield the funds in a way that a secular entity in bankruptcy would not, inasmuch as care of the dead was a central part of the church’s religious practice.

This week, a federal appeals court reversed Randa, saying that neither the First Amendment nor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act entitled the archdiocese to special bankruptcy treatment, and sent the case back to district court for a determination on the (secular) merits. Recognizing the Randa was unlikely to receive the case again, the appellate panel nevertheless went out of its way to make clear that he should have recused himself, as the creditors committee of abuse victims had asked – because nine of the judge’s relatives are buried in archdiocesan cemeteries, including his parents, whose plots he purchased himself.

“The Committee argues that a reasonable person would question the judge’s impartiality because he would be emotionally attached to the well-being of his family members’ resting places,” declared the panel, continuing drily: “The Archdiocese argues that no reasonable person would “make [that] leap in logic.” We think it surprising, given this litigation involves cemetery care and strongly held beliefs about the same, that the Archdiocese would give so little weight to the importance of where the deceased are buried.”

Sure, lawyers like to make any and all arguments they can, but it is not only contradictory to claim on the one hand that maintaining cemeteries is so essential to the practice of faith that it entitles the church to a religious exemption from bankruptcy law and to assert on the other that a devout member of the faith would have no personal stake in safeguarding the church’s wherewithal to do so. It suggests that the church’s claims of religious liberty are merely opportunistic.

And when it has to do with preventing victims of clerical sexual abuse from getting their due, it’s also a scandal.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

13 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Lets see people had to buy their lots in the cemetery. The law requires that there be a trust fund to maintain cemeteries, so was there not all ready a trust fund?
    Fifty five million does seem a lot for such a fund. What has happened to all the monies collected for sale of the cemetery lot?

    The damaged done to victims of sexual abuse and their loves ones can never be repaid with money, but it can provide counseling and punish, at least a bit, the Catholic Church for such inhuman action of covering up the abuse.

  • ” It suggests that the church’s claims of religious liberty are merely opportunistic. ”

    Yo, Mark, I think if you studied the operations manual of many of the USA RCC dioceses you would find that “claiming religious liberty” to hide, deflect, twist and obfuscate the issue at hand is Standard Operating Procedure. Just recently out there in San Francisco, when the Bishop published his faculty handbook outlining the prohibited behavior for teachers, they were referred to as “ministers.”

    Opportunistic? You’re being too kind with such an adjective.

  • With Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s spiritual and business prowess in ‘cemeteriesgate’ and in killing Wisconsin’s window legislation for reform of statute of limitations on child sex abuse, I can easily envision his name at the top of the next list of potential future pope’s.

  • The following information may aid in shedding some light on the $55 million dollar cemetery trust fund that is now in play in the lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This may however raise additional questions that may require further attention.

    1. Catholic Dioceses, as well as many educational institutions and public entities are notorious for commingling revenues, that are designated for particular purposes, into a general fund with one account number. Sometimes, the account number may carry an internal code preceded by a hyphen for internal tracking purposes but are not recognized for legal purposes unless separate accounts have been established for their use.

    2. When it comes to Catholic Dioceses, more often than not, monies accrued for certain purposes, such as bequests, special donations, building projects, cemetery upkeep, etc. are deposited into a general fund with no tacking devise. Instead, funds are haphazardly reported in paper documents, long since filed away, somewhere, or exist solely in the memories of clergy, who negotiated the donation, but are now no longer able to remember the transactions or are now deceased.

    3. The Daughters of St. Paul, a women’s religious congregation, originally consigned their retirement and pension funds for their lay employees to the Archdiocese of Boston for administration. After the priest abuse scandal broke, the Daughters attempted to recover their funds from the Archdiocese. After five years of fruitless negotiations with Cardinal O’Malley, the Daughters sued to secure their 1.4 million that were buried somewhere in the coffers of the Archdiocese. Forensic accountants were needed to dig out the Daughters’ contribution from all the other commingled funds.

    4. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee maintains eight individual cemeteries dating back to 1857. They require perpetual care. Monies collected from the sale of grave sites, mausoleum crypts and interments are used to pay the salaries of cemetery employees, their Social Security, TDI, health insurance, etc. benefits, purchase and maintain equipment, maintain grave sites as well as the general décor of the burial grounds, utilities, liability, comprehensive and vehicular insurance and set asides for perpetual care. The cost for one cemetery upkeep exceeds almost two million dollars per year. Multiplied by eight, the general amount in the trust fund, though seemingly large, provides a meager cushion needed to meet statutory and insurance requirements or emergencies.

    5. “. . . the appellate panel nevertheless went out of its way to make clear that he should have recused himself, . . .” An impartial judge’s decision against the Archdiocese may be equally questioned in view of the fact the judge may take an equally prejudicial and ex parte view inimical to the expectations and sentiments of the families of those buried in Archdiocesan cemeteries who can no longer expect perpetual care of their loved ones remains because the trust fund was exhausted with payments to victims and their attorneys.

    6. “. . . sent the case back to district court for a determination on the (secular) merits.” This statement by the Circuit Court may be the sole, salutary reason why relatives of the deceased may continue to expect continued care per their agreements when interment sites were originally purchased.

  • the appellate panel nevertheless went out of its way to make clear that he should have recused himself, as the creditors committee of abuse victims had asked – because nine of the judge’s relatives are buried in archdiocesan cemeteries, including his parents, whose plots he purchased himself

    Are the plaintiffs proposing to dig up the judge’s relations? If not, why is this a conflict of interest?

  • the Catholic Church for such inhuman action of covering up the abuse.

    Can you define ‘cover up’? Did you want the Archdiocese to publish the personnel files of priests?

  • Because if there’s no money to maintain the cemeteries, his relatives’ plots would suffer from decay and neglect.

  • Can you stop feigning ignorance of what is fairly well documented from a variety of news sources?

  • Art, is there ever a time you are honest or lacking in malice?

    Are you really so ignorant or stupid or do you think everyone else is?

    Its tough to tell since there is no reason to believe your responses are in any way genuine.

  • No, and nobody is even close to suggesting that. Can you be a bigger horse’s posterior?

    A judge recusing themselves due to a personal or pecuniary interest in the outcome of a case is common enough and to be expected. Failure to do so may result in grounds for appeal.

ADVERTISEMENTs