Two Reasons Why Church Settlement Isn't Fair

By Logan Jenkins
November 12, 2007

Two months ago, 144 sexual-abuse victims celebrated V-RC Day.

Victory over the Roman Catholic Church.

The San Diego diocese, after playing hard-nosed defense in bankruptcy court, agreed to a $198 million payout. The war was over.

Saints of the settlement be praised!

OK, you know all that. What you probably don't know is that two victims who legally, ethically and logically belonged in the so-called "global" settlement were left out.

Let's go back in time.

On Dec. 30, 2003, Brian Campbell, a Needles attorney, filed a lawsuit on behalf of two men who alleged that in the mid-1970s William Valverde, the pastor at St. Ann's Church, repeatedly exposed them and other Catholic adolescents in Needles to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and deviant sex.

According to Campbell, four adult parishioners traveled to San Diego for an interview with Bishop Leo Maher, who had jurisdiction over the San Bernardino County parish. The parishioners warned Maher that Valverde, who arrived in Needles after serving as associate pastor at St. Mary's Church in Escondido from 1969 to 1973, was "out of control."

Maher allegedly pulled out a stack of documents and said, "I wonder what took you so long."

After leaving Needles in 1976, Valverde went on to serve as a chaplain at the San Diego County jail and then at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, leaving the diocese in 1983. It's not known if Valverde is still alive, Campbell told me.

In 2002, the Legislature, reacting to the exploding church scandal, voted to suspend for one year 2003 the statute of limitations for civil cases against the church.

Is the Needles case against the San Diego diocese better or worse than the 144 cases included in the global settlement? On that score, I am an agnostic. What I will say, as an article of faith, is this: Their case is, on its face, no better or worse than the others.

So how did it happen that Dean A. and Wayne B., the victims' court names, were left out when they assumed they were in?

Human error.

The Needles lawsuit was filed on the penultimate day of 2003, but subsequent paperwork was performed in 2004. Somehow, attorneys responsible for organizing the class of "creditors" i.e., victims failed to include Nos. 145 and 146 in the sweeping September settlement of the 2003 cases.

All along, Campbell was appearing at noticed meetings.

"I received 1,378 e-mailed documents," he told me.

On Sept. 6, he appeared for a San Diego meeting but inexplicably was denied access to the settlement negotiation among the attorneys "on the list."

That was the first indication that something terrible was happening. A clerical mistake had turned into a fait accompli. Campbell contacted judges and attorneys. His protests reached a head Nov. 1 when Judge Louise DeCarl Adler, who was about to dismiss the church's federal bankruptcy case, spent 30 minutes on the Needles omission, expressing sympathy for the screw-up but ultimately deciding that it wasn't her court's problem.

As for the lead attorneys running the show, they said in so many lawyerly words, "Stuff happens in a complex case like this. The train has left the station. Life isn't always fair."

Now here's where it gets even richer.

Adler and the lead attorneys suggested Campbell's misfortune could work to the benefit of his clients. Excluded from the global settlement, they are now free to proceed with their individual lawsuit in state court, which is what they set out to do before they joined or thought they joined the San Diego Class of 2003.

In a gesture no doubt meant to be generous, lawyers for the creditors offered their services to Campbell in suing the diocese. They didn't mention if they would work for free. I sort of suspect not.

As it is, the fortunate 144 will get some money though how much each receives will be an exercise requiring Solomonic judgment as well as psychological closure, but Nos. 145 and 146 must soldier on, battling a church with unlimited resources, no matter how much the bishop poor-mouths. Liberated from the herd of victims, the church can focus on wearing out two mavericks.

As Campbell said in court, no one among the 144 is jumping to trade places with 145 and 146.

So why do I care? And why should you?

I figure the odds are better than even that these two men had their lives twisted by a pervert priest whom the San Diego diocese has identified as "credibly accused."

From what Campbell tells me, the men and their circle of pubescent parish friends went on to form a cluster of self-destructive behavior, including suicide. No matter how you draw it, not a pretty picture.

The two men who grew up in Needles had every reason to believe their four-year crusade against the church was coming to an end without their having to dredge up their sordid history in public.

As I say, I'm an agnostic on the merits. I do suspect bogus cases are hiding among the 144. Human nature being as fallible as so many pious priests have proven it to be, how could it be otherwise?

In the end, I hope the fakes get sniffed out and they, along with their lawyers, get what they deserve, which is nothing.

This morning, I'm just telling you that the settlement was falsely advertised and falsely celebrated. It wasn't global. Two small, sad countries were left out.

In his Nov. 1 courtroom appearance, Campbell found a bitter irony in the final number $198 million.

"It's a 100 percent solution for 98 percent of the creditors," he said.

Until 145 and 146 get what's rightfully theirs, the saints of this settlement should not be praised.

Logan Jenkins: (760) 737-7555;


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