Oregon Archbishop Says No One Has Authority to Seize Parishes

Catholic News Service
January 21, 2006

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland reiterated Jan. 20 that "no one in the archdiocese had the authority to seize parish property or assets" to satisfy clergy sexual abuse claims.

In his column in the Jan. 20 issue of the Catholic Sentinel, Portland archdiocesan newspaper, the archbishop said the bankruptcy court ruling three weeks earlier, declaring parish and school properties to be part of the archdiocesan assets to be considered in settling sex abuse claims, "felt like a punch in the stomach."

"We want to do what is right for victims and we are committed to the evangelizing mission entrusted to us by Jesus Christ," he wrote. "Parishioners, schoolchildren, the poor and the needy depend on us for services that are not so highly valued by many in today's secular culture. For us these matters are paramount, and so we make every effort to balance the demands of victims with the needs of the church."

The Portland Archdiocese is one of three U.S. dioceses that entered Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection proceedings in 2004, saying they did not have enough assets to cover the damages sought in lawsuits against them.

The Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., reached a $22.2 million settlement in July 2005 that involved a $2 million contribution from the diocese's parishes in return for not going to court to test whether or not parish properties should be included among diocesan assets.

In the Portland Archdiocese and the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., claimants pressed for a judgment that the diocese owns the parish properties, and in both cases bankruptcy judges ruled last year in favor of the claimants. The Portland ruling was handed down Dec. 30.

Archbishop Vlazny has repeatedly asserted that under church law parishes own their own property and the local bishop or archbishop only holds it in trust for their benefit.

In his column he reminded readers that the archdiocese entered bankruptcy proceedings on the advice of lawyers with the unanimous concurrence of the archdiocesan finance council and archdiocesan consultors when the archdiocese was facing two imminent trials in which the plaintiffs sought a combined total of more than $150 million.

"In the face of the two pending trials, we realized that negative verdicts could possibly consume the limited financial resources then available and leave nearly 70 other plaintiffs empty-handed," he said.

He said the question of "the value of the claims ... is the one that we have attempted to address from the very beginning."

"I want this matter resolved and resolved it will be," he said. But he added, "Common sense suggests that no fair solution will be reached by my unethical confiscation of parish property for the purpose of selling it without appropriate discovery and giving plaintiffs whatever they want."

A fair resolution "will undoubtedly be costly," he said. But he described the archdiocese's recent proposal to the bankruptcy court, to set up a $40 million fund to settle all claims, as "a reasonable plan which will compensate victims (with pending claims) just as generously as all who have come to us beforehand."



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