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  25 Diocese Abuse Claims Tossed

By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star (Tucson)
July 1, 2005

All but 23 resolved; vote is set for today

Federal Bankruptcy Judge James M. Marlar on Thursday tossed out 25 sexual-abuse claims filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson in connection with its Chapter 11 filing, paving the way for today's vote on whether to confirm the bankruptcy plan and wrap up the case.

Eighty of 103 sexual-abuse claims filed against the diocese by an April 15 deadline, including the 25 thrown out Thursday, now are resolved pending the bankruptcy plan's final approval.

Among the resolved cases, Marlar approved awarding $15,000 apiece to 20 claimants as part of a "compromise category" the diocese offered to people whose claims appeared credible but would not have been considered valid in civil or criminal courts, mostly because they happened so long ago.

The cases tossed out Thursday included claims of abuse alleged to have taken place outside of Tucson, claims involving consensual sexual relations with a priest and claims that included contradictory evidence.

Twenty-three claims still are pending, and the lawyer for the tort creditors committee expects some of those to be settled before confirmation hearings for the entire bankruptcy plan, slated to begin July 11.

Among the three contested cases that were argued in court Thursday was that of a 62-year-old widow who says her husband was sexually abused as a child during the 1950s by the Rev. George Pirrung, who at the time was assigned to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish in Miami, Ariz. Pirrung retired from the Diocese of Phoenix in 1997, has been suspended from active ministry and is named on a Diocese of Tucson list of priests against whom credible claims of sexual misconduct with minors have been made.

The woman told Marlar she was confused because her sister-in-law also said she was abused by Pirrung and that woman was among the 20 claimants to receive a $15,000 compromise settlement from the diocese. The woman cried during Thursday's hearing as she recounted how her husband remembered the abuse and she wondered why the diocese had not made a settlement offer.

Marlar reminded the woman that the case happened so long ago that it is no longer within the statute of limitations. In another contested case, a woman testified Catholics have invaded her life, harassing her and knocking on her windows. The court-appointed tort creditors committee objected to that claim because the woman could not be more specific about the harassment.

The claimant in the third contested case asked that the media not be present during testimony. Marlar took all three claims under advisement.

Marlar approved settlements for 30 people on June 14, representing initial disbursements of nearly $10 million. The diocese has committed to a settlement pool of at least $15.7 million, with future payments to people with valid claims of abuse possible, depending on real estate sales, parish contributions and future insurance settlements. Claimants each will receive initial disbursements of up to $600,000 per person.

Creditors, including people with valid claims, must vote by 4 p.m. today on whether to approve the plan. Results of the voting will be announced July 8. Creditors representing two-thirds of the money owed must approve the plan before it can take effect.

"I expect a lot of people will want to vote for the plan, but I think we'll know tomorrow for sure," tort creditors committee attorney C. Taylor Ashworth said after Thursday's hearing.

Attorney Lynne M. Cadigan represents 31 claimants who she said will vote for the plan, although she said there are still a few wrinkles to work out.

Diocese attorney Susan Boswell said the amount the parishes will pay toward settlements should be known soon, and that efforts to settle with insurance companies are going well. Already, The Hartford Insurance Co., an insurer for the diocese for some of the years when sexual abuse occurred, has settled for $7 million.

The local diocese on Sept. 20 became the second Catholic diocese in the nation to seek federal Chapter 11 reorganization due to litigation costs associated with sexual- abuse cases. The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., was the first, last July 7. The Diocese of Spokane, in Washington state, also has sought Chapter 11 protection.

But the Tucson diocese's case has moved more quickly than Portland's and, if approved, Tucson would be the first in the country to complete a Chapter 11 reorganization.

The local diocese, which includes 350,000 Catholics, in 2002 reached a $14 million settlement with 10 men who said they were sexually abused as children by four members of the local clergy in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. The diocese has not said how much of the settlement came from insurance.

The Catholic Church cases have been unprecedented in Bankruptcy Court because Chapter 11 cases typically concern corporate entities - an issue that Marlar raised as he considered the claims.

"It's something I've never experienced in all my years, and hopefully I will not again," he said during Thursday's hearing. "Having a commercial case come in with all these emotional issues is hard on all of us."

 
 

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