Filers: Claims against Wis. church not about money

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By DINESH RAMDE, Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Billy Kirchen says the sexual abuse began when he was about 11, when his choir director at a Milwaukee parish assaulted him in the 1970s. After five years of abuse he reported the alleged perpetrator, but says prosecutors and officials with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee did nothing.

Now he's hoping a financial claim against the archdiocese will finally lead to the emotional closure he has craved. Kirchen is one of about 550 people who filed a claim by Wednesday's deadline. Like many of them he said he's not looking to cash in — what he really wants is accountability.

The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection last year, saying pending sex-abuse lawsuits could leave it with debts it couldn't afford. As part of the filing, all sex-abuse victims were given until Wednesday to file a claim seeking monetary damages.

About 550 people did, more than in any of the other seven U.S. dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy protection. Several of the filers in the Milwaukee case told The Associated Press their claims weren't just about money.

Kirchen, 45, now works as a liturgical musician at St. Vincent Pallotti in Milwaukee, a church that's part of the Milwaukee archdiocese. He said many church officials, from his priest employer to Archbishop Jerome Listecki, know he was sexually abused by someone working for the archdiocese but no one has ever offered support.

"I work in the thick of them. And not one has ever come up and said, 'We understand what you're going through, we're sorry,'" Kirchen said. "Sometimes it's getting hit in the pocketbook that makes people act differently."

The AP generally doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse. However, Kirchen and the other two alleged victims in this report specifically granted AP permission to use their names.

The archdiocese has paid more than $30 million in settlements and other court costs related to allegations of clergy abuse and more than a dozen suits against it have been halted because of the bankruptcy proceedings. One late priest alone is accused of abusing some 200 boys at a suburban school for deaf students from 1950 to 1974.

Seven other dioceses in the nation also filed for bankruptcy under similar circumstances. Payouts in those cases have ranged from about $250,000 to $1.2 million per person.

However, James Stang, a bankruptcy lawyer who represents creditors in the Wisconsin case, speculated that any payouts here would be on the lower end. He said Milwaukee courts traditionally haven't been as sympathetic to abuse victims, and any cash pool would be divided among an unusually large number of claimants.

Kirchen said he hasn't thought about how much money he might get. He said he's more concerned with bringing awareness to a situation that the archdiocese refused to otherwise address.

Some Catholics have expressed mixed feelings about the abuse victims' tactics, saying they sympathize with what happened years ago but they don't want to see the church prevented from continuing its good works today.

But some who filed claims said the question of the church's viability is separate from the idea of justice.

Mark Salmon, 58, of Wauwatosa, said none of the other dioceses that filed for bankruptcy lost the ability to fund important programs.

"They're all running efficiently, doing what they did beforehand," he said. "And if you look at the bishops and archbishops in the hierarchy, they're hardly living a life of poverty."

Salmon said he was abused in the 1960s by his Catholic grade-school teacher. He said he won a $600,000 judgment against his abuser but never saw a cent of it.

Salmon said he filed a claim in part because he wanted the Milwaukee officials responsible held accountable. But he also acknowledged that a cash settlement would be nice.

"I have no qualms in saying I want as much money as I can get from these clowns," he said.

The next step in the overall case is a hearing at federal bankruptcy court in Milwaukee next Thursday. A judge will hear motions from the archdiocese to toss a number of claims. The archdiocese argues that some were past the statute of limitations or involve a perpetrator who wasn't directly employed by the archdiocese.

"As an organization, we have a responsibility to do the legal things necessary under the bankruptcy law to ensure that rightful claimants receive equitable compensation in the Chapter 11 proceeding," archdiocese spokeswoman Julie Wolf said in an email.

Nicolas Janovsky, 30, now of Tampa, Fla., wasn't persuaded.

"I think it's just a way for them (the Milwaukee archdiocese) to limit their payments," said Janovsky, who said he was molested by two different priests in the late 1980s when he was about 8. "But you can't ever place a dollar amount on what it does to an individual who was abused dozens times over the course of three years. I'm still furious."

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.

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