Clergy Meet As Activists Blast Idea of Bankruptcy

By Mark Sauer and Sandi Dolbee
Union-Tribune [San Diego CA]
February 20, 2007

San Diego Bishop Robert Brom met behind closed doors yesterday with hundreds of priests, a session clouded by a possible bankruptcy filing as the first civil trials in the sex-abuse scandal loom.

Roman Catholic officials refused to be interviewed about the meeting, or whether the diocese plans to follow through on Brom's contemplation of bankruptcy reorganization, which would halt several trials set to begin Feb 28.

Arizona attorney Susan Boswell, who was the lead attorney for the Diocese of Tucson in its bankruptcy case, walked the priests through what would happen if the San Diego diocese filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in bankruptcy court, according to sources familiar with the meeting of priests, which was part of the previously planned winter assembly.

"We must consider how best to fairly compensate the victims while at the same time not jeopardizing our overall mission. If this cannot be done through settlement negotiations, the diocese may be forced to file a Chapter 11 reorganization in bankruptcy court."

SAN DIEGO BISHOP ROBERT BROM, in a pastoral statement on sexual abuse cases

Brom reportedly gave no timeline for when a decision would be made but said the church was pursuing two venues settlements or bankruptcy. Four regions have filed for similar protection: Tucson, Spokane, Portland, Ore., and Davenport, Iowa. Much of the information at the meeting was addressed in Brom's pastoral letter to parishioners, which was released during Mass over the weekend.

As priests arrived at the Diocese of San Diego headquarters in Clairemont, a handful of clergy-abuse victims held a rain-soaked news conference to blast the bankruptcy idea.

They labeled it an attempt to stop lawsuits from going to trial, and to avoid grim and explicit details of abuse from being made public.


Background: The Catholic priest abuse scandal in the United States began unfolding in 2002, with thousands of lawsuits from allegations of misconduct and cover-up that date back decades. About 150 people have filed lawsuits against the Diocese of San Diego.

What's changing: In a letter distributed during weekend services, Bishop Robert Brom said that if the diocese cannot reach acceptable settlements with the victims, it may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The future: Brom will talk with priests today. The first of the lawsuits is scheduled to go to trial next week, though that could change if the diocese files for bankruptcy.


276 Priests, including diocesan and religious order priests

115 Parishes and missions

980,777 Catholic population in San Diego and Imperial counties

45 Elementary schools

5 High schools

2 Universities

SOURCE: Diocese of San Diego

"I think it's a stall tactic," said Victoria Martin, whose pending lawsuit involves a deceased priest. "I think it's a hiding tactic."

Flanked by quilts with pictures of young victims, another woman said a bankruptcy filing would pit laypeople against those filing lawsuits.

"It makes us the big bad guys," said Joelle Casteix, Southwest regional director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national victims-rights organization.

A SNAP delegation delivered a letter to the diocese urging Brom to "reject bankruptcy as an option." The letter said the timing of the bankruptcy message to parishioners, coming 10 days before the first trial is set to start, was "highly suspect."

"Instead of moving the diocese toward resolution, a bankruptcy filing now will only deepen already severe doubts about the sincerity of diocesan leaders," the letter said.

It called on the bishop to hold open meetings "at which parishioners and church employees could learn from you about the diocese's situation and ask questions."

The three women wanted to give the letter directly to Brom.

Instead, Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia stood silently in a hallway as SNAP representative Mary Grant handed the letter to him. Grant urged the diocese to release all documents concerning abusive priests.

Valdivia also refused to talk to reporters and asked a worker to escort them and the SNAP group off the property.

"Just like (Brom is) hiding in the diocese today, that's what this threat of bankruptcy protection is all about to protect him," Grant said.

Negotiations between diocese lawyers and those representing the roughly 150 people claiming they were abused by priests, in incidents dating back decades, are scheduled to continue this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys characterized Brom's broaching of bankruptcy as a cynical ploy.

"The true and only reason that Bishop Brom wishes to file bankruptcy is to stop the upcoming civil trials and end the continued inquiry into his own role in, and responsibility for, the scandal in San Diego," attorney John Manly said in a statement.

Manly, an Orange County litigator representing 18 San Diego claimants, called on Brom to publicly disclose the diocese's financial status; disclose documents pertaining to accusations of abuse by priests and alleged cover-ups by diocese officials; and account for what he said is the destruction of priest personnel files.

Should the diocese file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, about 60 cases released for trial including four already scheduled would be postponed indefinitely.

Such a filing under the federal bankruptcy code allows entities to reorganize finances and be sheltered from creditors, but only under the supervision and scrutiny of a bankruptcy court judge.

That loss of control might be tough for Brom, who enjoys almost unquestioned authority within the diocese.

The diocese also would have to reveal assets, including cash, property and investments. Protracted legal wrangling would occur over diocese finances, ownership of parish land and buildings, insurance coverage and many other issues.

The process could take several years.

Staff writer Greg Moran contributed to this report.


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