Priest-Abuse Ruling Was No Victory for Local Parishes

By David Slader
The Oregonian [Oregon]
May 21, 2003

L ast week's ruling by a Deschutes County judge, allowing the Catholic Diocese of Baker to transfer diocesan assets to individual parishes, was portrayed as a victory by church leaders ("Ruling backs diocese on assets," The Oregonian, May 15) and a setback for the 18 men suing the diocese for the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of a diocesan priest, the late Rev. David Hazen.

The bishop of the Diocese of Baker, the Most Rev. Robert Vasa, told The Oregonian, "I think that the parishes will be relieved to know that what their fathers and grandfathers built is considered theirs and will now remain in their hands as their property."

The effect, however, of Circuit Judge Michael Adler's ruling is just the opposite. The judge specifically rejected the church's argument that the diocese was not the true owner of its property and that it held those assets "in trust" for individual parishes. "Under Oregon law," Adler stated, "the property initially was not owned by the individual churches, but the diocese as a corporation sole."

In practice, this means that while Bishop Vasa will be allowed to transfer the vast bulk of the diocese assets to the new parish corporations he has created, those parishes will now be subject to liability for the hierarchy's cover-up of the abuse of children by one of its priests. In Oregon, as in most other states, it is unlawful to conspire to transfer assets to avoid one's debts. Every person who joins the conspiracy can be liable for any injury caused by the transfer. The parishes of the diocese of Baker, and their pastors, have been pulled into Bishop Vasa's unlawful strategy -- and they now share his guilt. Ultimately, if the diocese is unable to compensate Hazen's victims, those victims can and will look to the parishes to make them whole.

Rather than restoring to parishioners what is rightfully theirs, the bishop has, intentionally or not, yoked the individual parishes directly to Hazen's crimes and the subsequent cover-up perpetrated by Vasa and his predecessors. Rather than protecting the property of the faithful, Vasa's actions may ultimately compel them to open their own wallets to pay for the sins committed by the Catholic hierarchy. David Slader of Portland is the attorney for 18 men seeking compensation for child sexual abuse at the hands of the late Rev. David Hazen of the Diocese of Baker.


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