Mannix Torn between Justice, Church's Rights
He Wants Protection for Charities As Well As Abuse Victims
By Peter Wong pwong@StatesmanJournal.com
Statesman Journal [Salem OR]
July 9, 2004
Kevin Mannix of Salem is a Catholic and a member of St. Joseph Church.
Mannix also is a lawyer who has long supported victims of crime. As a legislator more than a decade ago, Mannix sponsored legislation enabling adults to sue people who abused them as children.
But Mannix said Thursday that he never imagined that myriad sex-abuse lawsuits would prompt the Portland Archdiocese to become the nation's first archdiocese to file for bankruptcy. The 20 largest unsettled lawsuits seek more than $340 million in compensation.
The church filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court just before the start of a civil trial in Portland in which two plaintiffs sought compensation totaling more than $160 million.
Mannix said that state law, the way it has been interpreted by the Oregon Supreme Court, the church and other religious and charitable groups, is wide open to a never-ending stream of lawsuits.
"I am an advocate for victims," Mannix said. "But I never advocated the destruction of charitable organizations. That is what is happening now.
"The Catholic Church may be first. But the operations of many charitable organizations that deal with children may be on the chopping block unless there is real reform of our laws to limit how much is going to be recovered from these organizations - and for how long."
Mannix is a founder and a board member of Blanchet Catholic School, which is not affected by the bankruptcy filing because it gets no money from the archdiocese or its parishes.
Mannix was a state representative for 10 years, eight as a Democrat and two as a Republican, and a state senator by appointment for a few months in 1998.
Mannix was a three-time candidate for statewide office, most recently in 2002 as the Republican nominee for governor. He is the chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, but he stressed that his views about this issue are his own.
Portland political observer Jim Moore said there is irony in Mannix's situation.
"We have a case of someone who was a Democrat at the time and saw that lawsuits and liability were a way to get redress of grievances," Moore said. "Now he is the head of the Republican Party; the law has had unintended consequences - and we all live with them.
"It is ironic to watch people sow what they reap."
In his second House term in 1991, Mannix was the chief sponsor of Oregon's law that allows victims to file suit as long as three years after they realize they were harmed by alleged molestation or rape - even if the harm occurred years earlier.
Under the previous law approved in 1989, the limit for lawsuits was within five years of a victim turning 18.
Among those voting for it -there were no dissenters in either chamber - was then-Rep. Kelly Clark, a Republican from Lake Oswego who, as a Portland lawyer, represents several plaintiffs in the current sex-abuse lawsuits.
Clark has handled about three dozen cases against the church in the past decade, many related to alleged sexual abuse by priests. Of the 20 largest unsettled claims that the church listed in its bankruptcy filing Tuesday, Clark represents five amounting to more than $60 million.
Mannix said that House Bill 2668 had one other limit: Lawsuits could not be filed after someone turned 40. The limit since has been removed from the law.
"I still believe that the actual perpetrators of child abuse should be held to litigation for a substantial time after a child becomes an adult," he said. "But I never intended that the employer of a child abuser be held responsible beyond the normal statute of limitations. If we had intended it, we would have said so."
Five years ago, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in a pair of cases that employers could be held liable for the child sex abuse committed by a Catholic priest or a Boy Scout counselor because they may have acted within the scope of their employment.
Clark, who was out of the Legislature, argued on behalf of the plaintiff in one of those cases that the church should have legal liability.
The court's decision in Fearing v. Bucher, he said, "clarified and strengthened the law of institutional liability for child-abuse victims and began to crack open the wall of secrecy around child abuse that had existed for decades in the Portland Archdiocese."
The 1999 Legislature passed a bill that would have limited employer liability in such cases unless the employer knew about the conduct and failed to take "reasonable steps" to stop it, such as how the Catholic Church handled sex-abuse cases in Boston.
Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed the bill. He said its exemptions for employers were too broad.
In his last term in the House, Mannix voted for the bill, sponsored by then-Rep. Roger Beyer of Molalla, now the Senate Republican leader. Mannix said the court's ruling was too broad.
Democrat Ted Kulongoski tried to make an issue of Mannix's support of the bill during their 2002 campaign for governor.
Mannix said it still is an issue that the Legislature should resolve.
"We need to find a way to balance mercy and justice for victims with the protection of benefits we receive from charitable organizations," he said.
Mannix had critical words for how the Portland Archdiocese has presented its bankruptcy. He said that officials should focus less on the financial effects on the church of costly sex-abuse lawsuits and more on the losses for children who attend its schools, disabled people who benefit from its services and sick people who receive its care.
"Better yet, they should have presented 50 cardboard cutouts who represent the church workers that the archdiocese has already laid off in its effort to pay these settlements," he said.
"If there are no limits on the liability of charitable organizations to pay for old cases, the organizations will no longer be able to provide major services to the community.
pwong@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745
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