Letting the Dead Bury the Dead

We’re all used to litigation involving efforts by religious institutions and individuals to exempt themselves from “secular” obligations like non-discrimination or giving employees access to contraceptives. But a ruling today by a federal judge in Wisconsin carries the debate into territory that its intended beneficiaries, the Catholic Church, may regret given the pounding they will get in the court of public opinion. Here’s the bland basics from the National Catholic Reporter:

The $57 million that Cardinal Timothy Dolan transferred from the coffers of the Milwaukee archdiocese to a fund for the maintenance of cemeteries is off the table and cannot be used to pay claimants in bankruptcy proceedings, a federal judge in Milwaukee ruled Tuesday.

Dolan, of course, is now Archbishop of New York and President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a major public figure in all sorts of church-state issues. His transfer of all that money into cemetery funds was deemed “shocking” by the Editors of the New York Times because it was clearly intended to keep it out of the hands of plaintiffs in 575 separate lawsuits against the Milwaukee archdiocese alleging sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Now that the archdiocese has filed for bankruptcy protection, it has sought in court to claim a religious liberty right to keep the transferred money off the table in the resolution of creditors’ claims, and Judge Rudolph Randa has agreed, citing the Catholic belief in the Resurrection of the Body as privileging the cemetery fund.

So victims of clerical abuse will not secure justice, but cemeteries will be well-tended.

The decision and the publicity around it is going to be a public relations nightmare for Dolan and the American Catholic Hierarchy, and perhaps even the Vatican. I’m sure we will often hear, as we should, the words of Jesus (Luke 9:60) to a believer who begged for time to bury his father before following Christ to Jerusalem:

Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.