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Former priest seeks back pay in Wisconsin

Marvin Knighton was acquitted of child sex abuse.

Marvin Knighton was acquitted of child sex abuse.

MILWAUKEE — 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.

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Knighton 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 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.’’

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 accused of abuse. In most cases, the claims are dismissed.

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 after allegations of abuse filed claims, diocese spokesman Bob Krebs said.

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