Diocese Settlement Plan Sidesteps Justice, Victims Advocates Say

By Bill Bishop
The Register-Guard [Portland OR]
December 22, 2006

Advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests are analyzing the bankruptcy settlement plan proposed by the Archdiocese of Portland and asking themselves: Where is the justice?

The bankruptcy, filed on the eve of trials that would have required church officials to testify about what they knew and what actions they took concerning abuse by priests, is aimed squarely at preventing accountability by church leaders, says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The proposed bankruptcy settlement also appears to effectively block the payment of large punitive damage awards - meant as a deterrent to continued bad behavior - to victims who reject the out-of-court settlement, go to trial and win such an award from a jury.

The lack of financial and personal accountability by church officials hurts not only the victims, but also leaves church members without answers about how the abuse by priests continued over many years and whether church officials are taking effective steps to stop it, Clohessy said.

"It's not about the money," Clohessy says. "It's all about the coverup. The number one thing we hear from every victim we see is: 'I just want to make sure this doesn't happen to somebody else.' "

The proposed bankruptcy settlement, announced last week, provides out-of-court payments to all but 26 claimants in 170 lawsuits by people alleging sexual abuse by priests of the archdiocese. The proposal uses almost $52 million from insurance companies, church assets and loans secured by church property to pay the settlements and to set up two trust funds - one for the 26 unsettled claims and one for future claims not yet filed.

The proposal does not require the sale or encumbrance of properties or funds of the archdiocese's 124 local Catholic parishes and schools to pay victims of abuse, according to court documents.

All lawyers, claimants and church officials connected with the bankruptcy case and abuse lawsuits are under a federal judge's gag order barring them from explaining or discussing specifics of the plan until it is approved by the federal bankruptcy court, a process likely to take several months.

However, court documents indicate the plan's structure will prevent a victim from collecting a large punitive damage award from the archdiocese because punitive damage awards would be paid only after all other awards for compensatory damages to all other claimants - and only if funds remain in the trust account.

That means both compensatory and punitive damage payments for the 26 unsettled claims must come from a trust account that, under the plan, will contain no more than $13.75 million. Considering that the trials of the two claims that triggered the bankruptcy in 2004 sought more than $155 million in compensatory and punitive damages, the trust account appears underfunded, critics say.

"As far as I know, punitive damages are basically off the table in the settlement because everyone has to get paid their compensatory damages before anyone gets a dime of punitives. What that basically does is remove all incentive to go for punitive damages," says Bill Crane, director of SNAP in Oregon. "Church leadership aided and abetted serial child rape for decades, and they continue to land on their feet unscathed."

The bankruptcy plan is typical of the "very brutal legal tactics" that are common in the church's response to sexual abuse claims nationwide, says Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest of the Dominican order, author and longtime critic of bishops' handling of the issue.

Doyle, 62, worked in the Vatican's U.S. Embassy in the 1980s when he was assigned to monitor a priest sexual abuse case unfolding in Louisiana. He has studied, written and testified about the topic ever since and is co-author of the book "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes."

In the book, Doyle followed the church's records of child sexual abuse by priests back to the fourth century. He concluded the problem is neither a current aberration nor a passing phenomenon, but something the church hierarchy has covered up all along.

Doyle says he believes that the problem is not one of politics or public relations, although those have been the responses of church leaders. By embracing a bankruptcy procedure, the archdiocese is dodging the real issue and casting itself as a victim of "greedy victims," Doyle says.

"What the victims want most is justice. This sidesteps the justice," says Doyle, who lives in Vienna, Va.

"What you have here is a fairly sophisticated example of what has been common - duplicity toward the victims," Doyle said. "This stuff has been going on for centuries. They've never been forced to answer for what happened. There is no guarantee that in another generation this isn't going to happen again."


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