Diocese Opts to Defend Accused Priests in Court

Sioux City Journal
September 8, 2006

Davenport, Iowa (AP) -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport, once content to settle priest abuse cases out of court, for the first time may let a jury decide if the diocese should be punished for failing to punish an accused priest.

Since 2004, the diocese has reached settlements estimated at about $10 million with dozens of abuse victims. But with more cases set for trial later this year, church officials say they face the possibility of financial ruin by consenting to more high-dollar settlements.

Next week, the diocese is expected to begin defending its actions in the trial of Monsignor Thomas J. Feeney, who died in 1982, advanced to the rank of vicar general in 1968 and has been named in six abuse cases.

In October, the first of several trials is scheduled to begin involving former priest and retired Sioux City Bishop Lawrence Soens.

Craig Levien, a Davenport attorney who has represented many of the abuse victims, said the diocese decided to take the cases to trial because financial assistance from its insurance company has diminished and to shield diocese assets.

"They are taking the position that the amount of the demands exceeds their assets, but I disagree," Levien said. "We believe some of the financial burden for resolving the pain that was caused by sexual misconduct of priests -- and known by the diocese -- can and should be borne by the diocese.

"To just use insurance money for these settlements is not being fully responsible for the wrong that was committed," Levien said.

But Rand Wanio, lawyer for the diocese, said the church is barred by contract from revealing its financial contribution to the settlements and disagrees with notions the it has escaped any financial burden.

"Anyone who tells you the diocese hasn't spent millions of dollars of its own money is either misinformed or providing misinformation," Wanio said.

In the biggest settlement, reached in November 2004, the diocese paid $9 million to 37 victims who claimed they were abused by priests in eastern Iowa.

Shortly after that deal, the diocese reduced staff from 40 to 25, but since then has added seven positions, church officials said.

Financial records compiled by its auditor show the diocese had $11.5 million in assets in 2004 and $7.9 million in 2005.

Shar Maaske, chief financial officer for the diocese, said of that $7.9 million, approximately $3 million is tied to building and property assets that are difficult to liquidate. The remaining $4 million is in restricted assets, which include money donated to the diocese, bequeathed in wills or earmarked specifically for education or other programs.

Soens has been accused in court papers of fondling male students during private meetings in his office while he served as priest and principal at Regina High School in Iowa City. Soens denies the allegations.

Diocese officials say insurance records for the school in the 1950s and 1960s no longer exist, leaving the diocese with no alternative but to fight the case in court.

"The monetary demands are in the multimillions, well beyond the financial capabilities of the diocese," Wanio said. "For that reason, and because we have good and factual legal defenses for these cases, we feel it's necessary to stand and fight in court."


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