(CNN) -- One of the most powerful Catholic Church leaders in America approved payments of $20,000 to get abusive priests to leave the church, abuse victims and the archdiocese in question said Thursday.
Victims feel "considerable dismay" that leaders of the church in Milwaukee "have been apparently engaged in paying off those who betrayed the children of our archdiocese," they said in an open letter to the current head of the church in Milwaukee, Archbishop Jerome Listecki.
But the case could reverberate far beyond the borders of the Midwestern city.
Timothy Dolan, who was archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, is now archbishop of New York, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a cardinal.
Notes from a meeting he attended in Wisconsin in 2003 show a "proposal" to offer $20,000 to "currently unassignable priests."
Former Catholic priest Patrick Wall, who now helps abuse victims sue the Catholic Church, said that term meant only one thing in his experience.
"Unassignable priests are those clerics whom the bishop cannot place in a parish because he has a serious moral impediment," he said. "In my 20 years' experience, the only impediment the term 'unassignables' referred to was a credible accusation of childhood sexual abuse."
The minutes of the finance council meeting emerged as part of Archdiocese of Milwaukee bankruptcy proceedings, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Wednesday.
The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection last year in the face of lawsuits from people who said they had been abused by its priests.
On Thursday, the archdiocese confirmed that it had offered payoffs to abusive priests as "the most expedient and cost-effective way to have offenders laicized or removed from the priesthood."
Having an abuser volunteer to go through the process known as laicization -- formally leaving the priesthood -- "was faster and less expensive. It made sense to try and move these men out of the priesthood as quickly as possible," the archdiocese said in a statement.
"Like it or not, the archdiocese is canonically responsible for the financial care of a priest -- even a priest who has committed such a horrible crime and sin such as clergy sexual abuse of a minor," the statement said.
Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for Dolan in New York, told CNN on Thursday he was not in Milwaukee and did not "know the background of what happened there."
Dolan was not scheduled to make public appearances Thursday.
One Catholic church source defended the payment plan on Thursday, saying, "You either pay them to leave and give them money for food and clothes and shelter as they look for a job or you have a drawn out trial that could take years."
"Wouldn't that be preferable than to keep them as priests and paying their salaries," the source, who would agree to speak only anonymously. "And wouldn't it be better than a trial and to have victims testifying and cross examined?"
CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi and CNN's Chris Kokenes, Adam Reiss and Marie Malzberg contributed to this report.