Phoenix Diocese Claim Clouds Issue of Parishes' Financial Dependency

By Stephanie Innes
Fox 11 [Phoenix AZ]
November 17, 2004

In what appears to be a direct contradiction to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson's argument that its parishes are financially separate entities, the Diocese of Phoenix is contending that parishes cannot be sued in sexual abuse cases because they are part of the diocese.

The issue has yet to be tested in a secular court, but the ramifications could affect the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson's federal bankruptcy case - specifically its 75 parishes, which generate nearly $19 million in plate collections annually.

"The church just takes the position that's most convenient to them in a lawsuit," said Lynne M. Cadigan, who represents 24 of the 34 plaintiffs with pending legal actions alleging sexual abuse of children by priests against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, which filed for federal bankruptcy protection Sept. 20.

"It's interesting to note that the only dioceses taking the position that parishes are separate are the ones filing for bankruptcy."

The local diocese has long said its parishes are separate financial entities even though their titles are in the diocese's name, meaning that if the parishes are separate, they cannot be targeted for liquidation or forced to pay sexual abuse settlement costs included in the Chapter 11 reorganization.

The parishes were not included in the list of $16.6 million assets the diocese listed when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. When parishes are included, county property records place the diocesan wealth at $46.1 million based on assessed values.

But the Tucson diocese's argument that parishes are financially separate is on its surfaces is the opposite of what's being argued in a motion filed in Maricopa County Superior Court by lawyers from the Phoenix law firm of Lewis and Roca - Jon Weiss and Mark Wagner - who write that a parish, "does not independently own any property or assets," and that parishes within a diocese are, "part of the diocese itself" - separate under church law but not under civil law.

Weiss and Wagner wrote the motion in response to a civil lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix that alleges sexual abuse of a minor by two priests and a nun at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Phoenix during the 1960s. The civil action, filed by 51-year-old Allan S. MacDonald, names Queen of Peace as a defendant, which Weiss and Wagner say shouldn't be allowed because the parish does not have its own non-profit designation and has no separate legal existence.

"Queen of Peace does not independently own any property or assets," the lawyers wrote. "... when a Catholic diocese is formed as a corporation sole, parishes within the diocese are part of the diocese itself and do not have any separate legal existence allowing them to be sued in civil lawsuits."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.