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  More Cases Expected; Some Will Remain Silent

By Tom Beal
Arizona Daily Star [Tucson AZ]
September 21, 2004

Expect more claims, more legal expenses and smaller payouts to victims of sexual abuse by priests as a result of the decision by the Catholic Diocese of Tucson to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, legal experts say.

But many victims of priest abuse will still suffer in silence, say some of those who have come forward.

The diocese already has settled 11 lawsuits and has paid nearly $16 million for those suits and some separate claims.

Its bankruptcy filing Monday halted lawsuits filed on behalf of individuals and their families in 22 other lawsuits.

It has said it knows of about 100 credible accusations of abuse by 28 priests, two deacons and a nun.

Number of cases will grow

It will learn of more, predicted Francis McGovern, a Duke Law School bankruptcy expert who has mediated "mass-torts" cases over asbestos, breast implants and the Dalkon Shield birth-control device. Filing for bankruptcy accelerates and expands claims for damages, he said.

In the case of the Dalkon Shield, the company had estimated it would receive up to 50,000 claims. "All of a sudden they were looking at 300,000," McGovern said.

McGovern said Chapter 11 sets up a process in which claims are easier to file - "often it's just signing your name" - and a deadline that makes filing a claim seem more urgent. Victims will be forced to come forward in a relatively short period of time, McGovern said.

Many won't do it, said David Sadorf, 37, who said it took him 13 years to tell his parents about sexual abuse that he says was committed by priests who ran his youth group at St. Andrew's Parish in Sierra Vista. He spoke about it publicly for the first time Monday - more than 20 years after he says the abuse first occurred.

Sadorf said bankruptcy could be an opportunity for the church and the victims of abuse to make "a fresh start."

"I'm more optimistic now for the church. Not for Bishop (Gerald F.) Kicanas and the minions that work for him, but for the people of God who are the church."

Sadorf said that in his eight years of dealing with the diocese under Bishops Manuel Moreno and Kicanas, the only thing they ever responded to was money. "I don't want to be responsible for bankrupting the Catholic Church," he said, "but it's the only thing available to punish the crimes they did, the crimes they covered up and the criminals they protected."

Sadorf said he was abused by the Rev. Kevin Barmasse, beginning in 1978 when he was 11 years old, and by the Rev. Robert Gluch, beginning in 1983. Barmasse had been transferred to the Tucson Diocese after being accused of molestation in Los Angeles.

When Sadorf finally told his parents in 1996, Sadorf's father, a deacon, arranged for a meeting with Moreno and told him of the molestation.

Sadorf said he was amazed, in 2002, when the diocese published a list of credible accusations of abuse that did not include Barmasse's name. He and his father met with the bishop, who said he didn't remember the report Sadorf's parents had made to him four years before. Sadorf eventually filed a lawsuit against the Tucson and Los Angeles dioceses.

The reforms the diocese has since put in place are good, he said, but they came only after the diocese had to shell out $14 million to settle its first big batch of cases in 2002.

Sadorf said he sometimes blames himself for later cases of abuse. "Here's the Catholic guilt coming out," he said. "Sometimes I think, 'If I had done more, maybe these kids in Yuma might never have been touched.' "

Speak now

Sadorf and other victims said many cases will never be reported. The Diocese of Tucson, in its filing, proposes a 90-day period for all claimants to come forward.

Victims' advocates say the time limit imposed by bankruptcy is unfair to victims of sexual abuse, for whom coming forward is a painful process that takes years, if not decades.

Jim Parker said he fears that "more survivors will continue to suffer in silence maintaining secrecy and shame because of the negative publicity."

"It's not unusual," said Parker, a member of the Southern Arizona chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, "for the survivors to think they're causing this, when in reality they're not the ones committing the crimes."

"The church is responsible for this," said Kathy Green, a supporter of the abuse victims who attended a press conference at which Parker spoke Monday, "because priests molested children, because priests raped and sodomized children. Put the blame where it belongs," she said.

A Douglas victim of priest abuse rejected victims' responsibility for the church's financial woes. "I don't feel guilty and ashamed because the church is in bankruptcy," said a man who asked to be identified as G. Sanchez. "They ruined my life."

Sanchez was abused by the Rev. Julian Sanz, who is in prison for the offense. Sanchez said he first met Sanz at age 11 when the priest recruited him to be an altar boy. The experience left him unable to trust or love people, Sanchez said.

Legal costs will rise

The legal costs of bankruptcy will drain an already limited pool of money available for settling the claims, McGovern said. The diocese will automatically be responsible for the fees charged by the lawyers and experts sorting through its assets and the claims against them. "The amount of money it takes to resolve one of these bankruptcies can be quite, quite high," McGovern said.

McGovern said Chapter 11 filing does present one big advantage to both sides in a dispute.

"The upside is you get the issues resolved, and people can move on with their lives."

Lawsuits and jury awards, no matter how large, don't compensate victims, he said. "Money is a very poor surrogate for the remedy they would like to have."

Winners and losers

There are winners and losers when the rules of Chapter 11 are applied in "mass torts" cases, said Elizabeth Warren, professor of law at Harvard Law School and an adviser to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission.

"No doubt the first claimants lose; they are unable to collect their jury verdicts in full and without delay," Warren wrote. "But because bankruptcy law focuses on all the claimants, what the early claimants lose is preserved for the later claimants."

The diocese loses its privacy and autonomy. "This is one of the critical elements that many of us thought would keep a religious institution out of bankruptcy court," Warren said in a telephone interview.

But bankruptcy also gives the diocese a means of resolving its financial future, once and for all, she said.

 
 

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