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  Charges Threaten Diocese Funds Lawsuits Loom; Parishes' Sunday Collections Drop

By Jonathan Martin
Spokesman Review [Spokane WA]
October 13, 2002

Don Brockett wants to know why he wasn't told about former Rev. Patrick O'Donnell.

Brockett was Spokane County prosecutor when Spokane Catholic bishops sent O'Donnell to treatment - instead of law enforcement - for allegedly molesting dozens of boys in the 1970s and '80s.

Brockett feels doubly misled, because his children spent time with O'Donnell when the priest was assigned to Spokane's Assumption of the Blessed Virgin parish.

The Spokane Diocese's failure to inform Brockett - as either prosecutor or parent - will now have consequences, Brockett said this week.

Brockett said he will withhold donations until Bishop William Skylstad shows there is a new attitude toward clergy abuse by releasing the names of five current and former Spokane priests accused of sexual misconduct. In a meeting at Assumption earlier this month, "The bishop reiterated that this is a different culture, and a different time, and there will be a change," said Brockett, 66. "My concern is, so then why does he have a concern about revealing the priests?" In an organization that survives largely on parishioners' generosity, the financial cost of such anger is not yet known. Diocese officials say they've seen a drop in Sunday collections at some parishes, but attribute it to the economy.

"We live basically from hand to mouth," Skylstad said in a recent interview.

Those like Brockett who've stopped giving expect the diocese to face big payouts to 10 people who sued the diocese and O'Donnell Sept. 26. Several lawyers say other lawsuits related to alleged serial molestation by O'Donnell are pending.

"I think they should have to sell some assets, and do some serious thinking about how they handle" cases of clergy sexual abuse, Brockett said.

The amounts of settlements vary widely, depending on the circumstances, but several dioceses elsewhere have recently agreed to pay victims between $350,000 and $375,000 each.

The diocese's ability to withstand potentially multimillion-dollar payments is unclear, because its books are closed to public inspection. Diocese officials believe they have insurance of $1 million per victim of abuse, but they've yet to formalize agreements with several carriers from the 1970s and '80s.

Property records show that the diocese owns land assessed at $32.5 million in Spokane County, plus other parcels across its 13-county territory. Among those parcels are farms near Rosalia and Walla Walla.

It also has $16.3 million in investments, according to records published in the Inland Register.

An article in the Oct. 21 edition of the Catholic magazine America suggests that lawsuits from the sexual abuse scandal may force some dioceses nationwide into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Associated Press reports more than 300 lawsuits filed in 16 states since January.

There's no suggestion of a bankruptcy filing by the Spokane diocese. Last week, Skylstad said donations to the 2002 Catholic Appeal - the largest source of money to his chancellery office - were strong, just $75,000 short of its record goal of $2 million.

That appeal pays for seminaries, administrative costs such as insurance premiums, and priests' retirement funds.

Skylstad was out of town late last week, heading to the Vatican for a meeting about issues in the American Catholic Church. Skylstad is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

His chief administrator, Vicar General Steven Dublinski, said he'd heard of a few families refusing to donate to the Catholic Appeal, a decision he said was "unfortunate."

"I can understand how they're angry," said Dublinski. "Part of a Catholic community is we walk through things together. Great damage was done by a member of our community, that we helped correct. ... We can only get through this together."

In addition to the O'Donnell case, the diocese has been named in at least four lawsuits involving priest sexual abuse since Skylstad became bishop in 1990.

All involved incidents before his appointment. All were settled before trial, in confidential agreements.

Skylstad told the St. John Vianney parish last week that the diocese has paid $40,000 to $50,000 in the past 12 years to pay counseling and medical bills of victims of priest sexual abuse.

The diocese has also paid an undisclosed amount to victims, but recovered all payments from insurers or the priests themselves, said Dublinski.

"Not all priests come from poor families," he said.

Bellevue attorney Jeff Keane, who was involved in two of the suits, said he'd be surprised if the Spokane diocese hadn't paid more than the figure quoted by Skylstad. "That doesn't sound accurate to me," said Keane. "It also doesn't even count what their other costs may have been," including attorney fees and expert witness costs.

One client, Paula Wright, won a settlement after suing the Spokane diocese and the Rev. Theodore Bradley in King County in 1994.

The suit claimed that Bradley used premarital counseling between himself and Wright to break up her pending marriage and start an affair. Wright was 17 when the counseling started.

Bradley, who didn't return a phone call requesting comment, was stripped of his ministerial credentials following the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting on sexual abuse in June. He is currently the volunteer archivist for the diocese.

Wright, who has since married and has the last name of Hazelton, regrets signing a confidentiality agreement. She said she did so to avoid the trauma of a trial.

"We knew we probably weren't changing the church's approach to that problem" by settling confidentially, she said recently. "Today, as I think about it, they still wield this power over victims who signed confidentiality settlement agreements. There's still secrecy."

Jeff Anderson, one of the nation's leading attorneys on clergy sexual abuse, said criticism of secrecy is common.

"The bishop has complete, unfettered discretion on all affairs of the diocese, particularly finances," said Anderson, who has handled 700 clergy sexual abuse cases from his St. Paul, Minn., practice.

"Under the organizational structure, the bishop only answers to (Holy) See in Rome. There is no external means to account."

About 90 percent of all cases against the diocese are handled by insurers who are slow to negotiate, forcing church officials to sue them, said Anderson.

The Spokane diocese was covered by three different insurers during the time O'Donnell was accused of abusing boys, said Dublinski. By the early 1990s, the only coverage available to the diocese for "morality insurance" was through the Catholic Mutual of Omaha, a member group of dioceses nationally.

Settlements usually range from about $15,000 to $5 million, but often only the big ones are reported publicly, said Anderson. Cases are worth more when bishops failed to act on their knowledge of abuser priests and victims have suffered serious harm as a result, he said.

Skylstad, in a trio of recent meetings with parishes where children were allegedly molested by O'Donnell, said there was a mistaken belief in the church "culture" decades ago that pedophiles could be reformed.

That's why O'Donnell was sent to treatment, not to Brockett's office.

That answer doesn't sit well with the former prosecutor.

"It was the culture in the church to keep it secret, but it wasn't the culture in society," said Brockett, a Catholic since 1959.

"I prosecuted hundreds of men and sent them to jail."

 
 

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