The list of creditors for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee includes hundreds of child sexual abuse victims, along with a bank, pension funds and others typical in bankruptcy cases. It also includes one less usual: a priest removed from the priesthood amid allegations of abuse.
Marvin Knighton was charged with child sexual abuse in 2002 but acquitted by a jury the next year. The church still removed him from the priesthood, however, saying its investigation found two allegations against him had merit.
Knighton steadfastly fought his dismissal and has put in a claim for $450,000 for back pay from the archdiocese in federal bankruptcy court. A church bankruptcy expert said while the claim is not unique, it is highly unusual. Knighton’s victims called it "disturbing" and "grossly inappropriate."
"That money should be going to survivors, not child molesters," said Thomas C. Bersch Jr., who said he was abused by Knighton in the 1970s. "During the bankruptcy proceedings, if he gets even a nickel of this money, it would be the most unbelievable thing that could happen. I wish there is something I could do to prevent that."
Attorney James Stang, who has represented sexual abuse victims on creditors councils in nine bankruptcy cases involving Catholic dioceses and religious orders, said a few priests have filed claims for back pay, health care or legal costs even when they’ve been credibly accused of abuse. In most cases, the claims are eventually dismissed.
The church may argue that any money it owes the priest is offset by the cost of the abuse, or "there have just been objections based on the fact that these are evil men," Stang said.
The Milwaukee archdiocese is the eighth in the United States to file for bankruptcy. Five of the other seven said no priests filed claims during their bankruptcies. In Wilmington, Del., three priests who had been removed from ministry following allegations of abuse filed claims, diocese spokesman Bob Krebs said. He didn’t know the details or outcome of those claims.