Yesterday brought big developments in two ongoing sexual abuse stories: the resignation of Rabbi Norman Lamm as chancellor of Yeshiva University and the revelation that Cardinal Timothy Dolan shielded a pile of cash from legal claims when he was archbishop of Milwaukee.
Lamm’s resignation came six months after the Jewish Forward reported that in late ’70s and early ’80s two senior staff members who had abused students at Yeshiva’s high school for boys were permitted by Lamm to resign and take jobs at other Jewish schools. “If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly,” Lamm told the Forward. “It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry.”
Not that anyone was admitting that the resignation had anything to do with the cover-up. To the contrary, the official version was that it had been arranged for Lamm to step down three years ago. Who knew?
Still and all, in a letter to the Yeshiva community, he did repent for what he had done: “True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong.” And indirectly, he acknowledged that he is in fact paying a price for what he did: “You submit to momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what is before you, and in the process you lose the Promised Land.”
So, despite giving himself too much credit for good intentions, and permitting himself some Mosaic self-aggrandizement (no Promised Land), Lamm did the right thing.
Meanwhile, the release of thousands of pages of documents on the handling of abuse cases by the archdiocese of Milwaukee revealed that in 2007 Archbishop Dolan obtained the permission of the Vatican to transfer a nearly $57-million cemetery fund off the archdiocesan books and 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.
In addition, the released documents revived the story that Dolan had provided priests accused of abuse with $20,000 payments to induce them to request to be laicized, thereby hastening the process in Rome.
Dolan’s response, which he posted on his blog, was characteristically defensive.
Unfortunately, we have already seen how the release of these documents will cause some to raise old and discredited attacks – like priest-abusers having been “paid” to apply for laicization, (like it or not, bishops do have a canon law obligation to provide basic support like health care and room and board for their priests until they have finally moved on) or 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.
Both claims are, to put it charitably, incredible. Last year, the spokesman for archdiocese told the New York Times, “It was a way to provide an incentive to go the voluntary route and make it happen quickly, and ultimately cost less.” As for the cemetery trust, we have Dolan’s own letter to the Vatican stating that the purpose of the transfer was “an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.”
What is the moral of this tale?
Both Lamm and Dolan are powerful religious figures. But in their own bailiwicks, Lamm is answerable to a board of trustees and Dolan is answerable to no one — except the Vatican. And to date, the Vatican has manifested no standards, procedures, or appetite for disciplining hierarchs who behave improperly in abuse cases — even if, as in the case of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, they have been convicted of covering up abuse in civil court.
If Pope Francis is indeed serious about cleaning up his Church, there can be no higher priority than to turn this situation around.