Spokane Diocese Offers $45.7 Million to Settle Sex-Abuse Claims

By Nicholas K. Geranios
Associated Press, carried in
February 2, 2006

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Victims of sexual abuse by priests say the key portion of the settlement offered by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane is not the money, but changes intended to prevent molestations from occurring again.

A settlement offer of $45.7 million to 75 victims was announced Wednesday. The deal, if approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Court and victims, would also require Spokane Bishop William Skylstad to make greater efforts to prevent abuse.

Skylstad is head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Spokane case was being closely watched by other dioceses facing lawsuits over sex abuse.

"The deepest feeling I have is a sense of accomplishment that our children and grandchildren are safer and much more protected," said Mike Shea, an abuse victim and member of the committee that negotiated the deal.

"We want to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Brad Norton, another victim who served on the committee.

Under the proposal, Skylstad must go to each parish where abuse occurred to identify the perpetrator; individuals who were abused would be given the opportunity to address parishes; and the diocesan newspaper would devote space to victims to write about their experiences, a lawyer for victims said.

The diocese would also refrain from referring to victims as "alleged victims."

"We wanted to take the `alleged' off our title," Norton said.

The proposal also called for Skylstad to advocate for abolition of statutes of limitations on sex crimes, and to write letters to individuals who were abused and to their families.

The diocese must add two abuse victims to its board that reviews clergy sex abuse complaints. And the names of abuser priests would remain posted on its Web site.

David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of the victims group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the non-monetary aspects of the Spokane agreement were key.

"No bishop wants to be told what he should do to prevent abuse," said Clohessy, who appeared at the Spokane news conference. "The church has shown it own reforms are ineffective."

Skylstad on Wednesday publicly apologized to victims "for the terrible wrongs inflicted on you in the past." He urged Catholics to accept the proposed settlement, which will require money from individual parishes.

"For those who feel this settlement will be a burden for the next several years, a burden we can't as a church afford, I would say that this scandal is a burden we can no longer afford not to resolve," Skylstad said.

It's not exactly clear where the diocese will get the money. Skylstad said it will be a combination of selling or mortgaging some $11 million in diocese assets, an undetermined sum negotiated from six insurance carriers, and funds raised from the Catholic community, which could eventually include the sale or mortgage of parish churches, schools, cemeteries and other property.

Victims' lawyer James Stang said the offer must be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and by the victims individually within 120 days.

The settlement would cover all those who have already sued the diocese. There is no provision for anyone who might bring a claim in the future. There is a March 10 deadline for filing claims.

The diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004, citing claims by abuse victims totaling about $77 million against assets of about $11 million.

Two other U.S. dioceses _ Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore. _ have filed for bankruptcy protection because of sex abuse claims. A $22.2 million settlement was reached last summer in Tucson, while a federal judge in Portland ruled last month that trials involving as many as 100 plaintiffs could move forward.

Stang said any victims who opt out of the deal are free to pursue their own case against the diocese. Victims who accept the deal will decide among themselves how the money would be divided, Stang said. Attorney fees were negotiated between each victim and attorney and Stang refused to disclose them.


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