Lawsuit Seeks Payment of Priest Abuse Claims by Parish Churches

By Jeff Barnard
The Associated Press, carried in [Grants Pass OR]
November 11, 2003

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Eighteen men seeking $69 million from the Roman Catholic diocese for Eastern Oregon over allegations of sexual abuse by a priest have filed a new lawsuit that extends their claims to the 62 individual churches in the region.

Filed Friday in Klamath County Circuit Court in Klamath Falls, the new lawsuit was brought after a Deschutes County circuit judge in Bend allowed Bishop Robert Vasa to transfer assets held by the diocese to individual churches before the sexual abuse claims are resolved. The Diocese of Baker is headquartered in Bend, which is also where the original lawsuit was filed,

The new action alleges Vasa and the individual churches acted fraudulently and illegally when he created new corporations covering the churches, then transferred to them assets such as church buildings and lands estimated at more than $19 million. The new suit charges that such an action left the diocese without significant assets to cover damages sought in the priest abuse lawsuit.

"There is no satisfaction in this step, but we cannot allow Bishop Vasa to duck accountability by claiming a false and sudden poverty," David Slader, attorney for the alleged victims, said in a statement. "This is the only path to justice that remains for all of the men whose childhood was poisoned by Father Hazen's abuse and by the hierarchy's cover-up."

Prior to the transfers, Vasa estimated diocese assets of $11.5 million, plus $6 million in cash and potential insurance.

Calls to Bishop Vasa and diocese attorney Greg Lynch were not immediately returned.

In the original lawsuit, the 18 men allege they were sexually abused in the 1950s and 1960s by the late Rev. David Hazen and that the diocese sent Hazen back to local churches after learning he was a sexual predator. Most of the cases were in Klamath County, where Hazen was a priest at St. Pius X Church, the new lawsuit alleges.

Plaintiffs have submitted as evidence a confession signed by Hazen and a pledge of secrecy signed by a former altar boy promising the diocese he would never divulge the abuse.

Plaintiffs claim that the late Bishop Francis Leipzig sent Hazen to Milwaukee, Wis., for treatment, and after a year assigned him without supervision to Klamath Falls, where he continued to molest boys for 10 years. Rumors there prompted the diocese to transfer him to a series of small-town parishes around Eastern Oregon.

During a hearing in Deschutes County Circuit Court last May, Slader argued that Vasa was testing a new legal strategy to see if he and other bishops nationwide could avoid millions in damages over priest abuse lawsuits by turning over assets from the diocese to individual churches.

But Lynch, the attorney for the diocese, argued that the assets held by the diocese were actually the property of the individual churches.

Vasa testified that he had undertaken plans to give the parishes control of their assets to comply with church law and had no intention of avoiding damages.

Deschutes County Circuit Judge Michael Adler found no evidence to indicate otherwise and allowed the transfers to go ahead.


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