Parishioners Could Pay for Abuse for 10 Years

By Stephanie Innes
Tucson Daily Star [Tucson AZ]
Downloaded February 7, 2004

Parishioners in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, who donate a total of $18 million annually to the collection plates at their churches, can expect eight to 10 more years of paying off debts related to litigation over sexual abuse.

Parishioners will continue to see a portion of that collection money go toward legal expenses while the diocese contends with 18 pending civil actions alleging sexual abuse. Money from parishes provides slightly more than one-quarter of the diocese's $5.5 million annual income.

"The diocese is operating with a negative net worth and, absent some major windfall, will operate with negative net worth for eight to 10 years," said Mary M. Huerstel, diocesan chief financial officer.

The question of how to keep the church running while meeting the demands of alleged victims of abuse by priests continues to challenge the diocese, which this weekend releases its annual financial report to parishioners.

"We're continuing to discuss mediation alternatives and respond reasonably to people's concerns, but the resources of the diocese are not unlimited," Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said in an interview.

Kicanas says the diocese is trying to balance litigation costs and the needs of abuse victims with what he says is the church's true bottom line - supporting a mission entrusted to it by Jesus Christ.

"If necessary we will explore every alternative to meet expectations to responding to people's hurt," he said. "Bankruptcy is not a preferred option, not a first alternative but clearly an alternative."

Kicanas says that when the diocese paid out a large settlement over sexual abuse in 2002 - a payout estimated to be as high as $16 million - officials thought it represented the end of a scandal involving molestations of minors during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Last summer the diocese reached a second settlement with the families of five Yuma girls who say they were molested by Catholic-school teacher Phillip Gregory Speers during the 1999-2000 school year.

"We absolutely could not make the kinds of settlements that have been made recently," Kicanas said. "The difficulty now is that a good deal of our resources were given out in the first case with the understanding that that was the extent of the issue. We are struggling with the fact that there are future claims."

Alleged abuse victim speaks

A key part of that struggle is balancing regular church operations with answering to people like Ron Lehner, a 46-year-old Phoenix resident who sued the diocese in 2002, claiming he'd been molested by Monsignor Robert C. Trupia in 1974 when he was 16.

Lehner, whose case is set to go to trial in Pima County Superior Court April 20, grew up attending Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church, 1800 S. Kolb Road. The diocese classifies Trupia, who was named in six of the lawsuits that settled in 2002, as a notorious and serial predator.

Lehner was once a student at Regina Cleri Seminary, 8800 E. 22nd St. Until the late 1970s, Regina Cleri was a high-school seminary for boys considering a career in the priesthood, and it's where Trupia stayed and helped with student orientation during visits to Tucson. Regina Cleri has since been converted into St. Augustine Catholic High School.

Lehner claims that when he was kicked out of Regina Cleri, Trupia invited him to Yuma to spend a week, promising he'd help the boy get back into the seminary. Lehner says Trupia gave him a plane ticket. While in Yuma, Lehner says, he had to sleep in Trupia's bed and endure molestations for two or three nights until he begged the priest to let him go home.

The diocese has paid Trupia nearly $200,000 since his suspension in 1992 in the form of a stipend, including health insurance.

"I can't believe we're still paying Trupia or anyone like him. I say 'we' because I am still connected to this community and I still consider myself Catholic," Lehner said.

Kicanas countered, "While we have every reason to end his salary, all that would do is allow him another opportunity for appeal.

"I don't want to do anything right now to delay the process that is under way now to remove him from the priesthood," the bishop said.

Are parish finances separate?

Whether the diocese can afford to pay future substantial settlements to alleged victims like Lehner is up for debate. While the diocese budget lists assets of $21 million, others place the diocese's worth at much higher and cite other income, like total parish collections and the separate Catholic Foundation as sources of wealth.

"They have plenty of money to do right by these victims," said attorney Kim Williamson, who along with Lynne M. Cadigan is representing Lehner and 13 other plaintiffs in pending legal actions against the diocese.

No American Catholic diocese has ever filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has represented more than 700 victims of clergy abuse across the country.

The Tucson diocese, for example, does not include parishes in its list of assets, maintaining they operate as separate entities - which Anderson dismisses as a way to underestimate the church's value.

"It's patently deceptive to suggest the assets of the parish are separate from the assets of the diocese," Anderson said. "Every single time the real financial picture of a diocese has been made public they always underreport. They have been shown to have multilevel corporate structures, hold properties, substantial portfolios of stocks and bonds, assets that are liquid and nonliquid. And that is the poorest and smallest diocese to the richest and largest."

While Lehner and his lawyers say the diocese needs to provide further compensation to victims who have come forward since 2002, some parishioners are growing concerned about the number of lawsuits.

"People who are suing the diocese, it's more for the benefit of the lawyers, either their notoriety, or for money in the pockets," parishioner Linda Cutler said after attending Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, 8650 N. Shannon Road. "From what we know, the diocese has been very truthful on what they own."

Cutler suggested that there might need to be limits imposed on the amounts plaintiffs can collect from the diocese. She added that it doesn't seem right to force a diocese to sell its churches.

Still, "I'm not saying these lawsuits are frivolous," she said.

Collection money breakdown

The Tucson diocese has 74 parishes. An analysis by Dean Hoge, director of the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., estimates that Catholic parishes on average collect $375,000 per year. That's a conservative estimate, stressed Hoge, who says the figures are from 1995 and plate collections have increased everywhere except in Boston since the sexual abuse scandal.

Using Hoge's estimates, the Tucson Diocese's parishes pull in $27 million annually through plate collections alone. Diocese officials, however, put the figure at $18.2 million, explaining that the diocese, which stretches across nine counties, has a number of low-income parishes.

While a portion of parish collections goes to the diocese's general fund, at least 93 cents on every dollar remains with the parish, diocese officials say, stressing that maintaining parish life is paramount to the church's mission. Total plate collections in the diocese this year are expected to be $19 million, which works out to $256,756 per parish.

In addition to plate collections, the parishioners gave $2.7 million to the annual Catholic Appeal last year. None of that money goes toward litigation costs. The diocese also has a separate foundation for donations to the church - the 20-year-old Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Tucson, which currently has $11 million in assets, according to paperwork filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2003.

The foundation helps donors establish endowments and other charitable estate planning and operates as a separate entity from the diocese. The diocese sold its Downtown headquarters to the Catholic Foundation for $1.65 million last year and is now paying rent to the foundation.

According to Hoge, the American Catholic Church takes in between $7 billion and $8 billion per year from its 66 million parishioners. In spite of a new wave of litigation that followed the national sexual abuse scandal, Hoge has no doubts the U.S. church, including those dioceses facing a second wave of abuse lawsuits, will survive.

"It's not even a close call. Some units may not do well but the idea is unthinkable that it won't survive," he said. "If any unit, including a diocese, is in jeopardy or serious straits, people will come forth to help out."


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