Diocese Barred from Giving Funds to Churches
By Tom Peterson
The Bulletin [Bend OR]
February 4, 2003
Deschutes County Circuit Court Judge Michael Adler on Monday temporarily stopped the Roman Catholic bishop for Eastern Oregon from transferring assets to 50 churches after an attorney contended it was a strategy to protect financial assets from victims who win sex abuse suits.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baker faces nearly $70 million in claims from 18 men who say they were sexually abused in the 1950s and 1960s in Burns and Klamath Falls by the late Rev. David Hazen.
The Diocese of Baker includes parishes in Bend, Redmond, Sunriver, La Pine, Prineville, Madras, Sisters and Gilchrist.
The plaintiff's attorney, David Slader, argued that Bishop Robert Vasa was testing the strategy to see if he and other bishops nationwide could avoid millions in damages by turning over assets to individual churches.
"This is the first time this scheme has been tried around the country," Slader said. "If they succeed here, it will spread to dioceses throughout the country."
Greg Lynch, the attorney representing the Diocese of Baker, denied that the bishop was trying to protect assets from sexual abuse claims.
Lynch said the bishop, in coming into compliance with church law, "had the plan (to transfer ownership of churches) before a single lawsuit was filed. There is no clandestine move to keep litigants from having access to funds if in fact they prevail on any or all of their claims."
Lynch said Slader's motion to stop the transfer of assets relies on the assertion that every Catholic in the diocese of Baker is liable.
"By the same logic, every Boy Scout is liable for the behavior of a scout master," Lynch said. "That is not what the law says."
"These assets are not being dissipated. They are simply going to their rightful and legal owner," Lynch said.
Bishop Vasa, who was not at the hearing, has said the diocese would prefer to resolve the alleged victims' complaints individually without going to court.
Adler issued a temporary restraining order barring the transfers pending a full hearing on whether to grant a permanent injunction. Attorneys for both sides said they expect Bishop Vasa to testify and that the hearing would not be scheduled for some months.
Slader said a search of tax records showed property held by the diocese assessed at $19 million.
Adler did not immediately rule on the diocese's motion to divide the case into 18 separate trials, rather than one consolidated trial.
He also gave the plaintiffs permission to seek $50,000 each in punitive damages in addition to the $3.8 million they are each seeking from the diocese. That totals $69.3 million for the 18 plaintiffs.
In arguing for punitive damages, Slader noted that he has obtained a confession signed by Hazen and a pledge of secrecy signed by a former altar boy promising the diocese he would never divulge the abuse.
Slader said that the late Bishop Francis Leipzig sent Hazen to Milwaukee, Wis., for treatment, and after a year assigned him without supervision to a church in Klamath Falls, where he continued to molest boys for 10 years.
"He is like a little boy in a candy shop with open shelves," Slader said of Hazen. "He integrates his abuse into the rituals of the church, telling parents 'I will come bless your son before he goes too bed,' then goes up and molests them."
Lynch argued against allowing the plaintiffs to seek punitive damages, citing a Supreme Court ruling that said they should be imposed rarely and only to change the behavior of people or institutions.
In arguing for separate trials, Lynch said it would be impossible for jurors to keep so many claims separate.
"If you have 18 people come into court for the same trial, we are going to lose that jury the second day," he said. "They are going to say all these people can't be lying."
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Tom Peterson can be reached at 541-383-0304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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