|Deadline Nears to File Catholic Sex Abuse Claims
By Mary Beth Smetzer
November 16, 2008
FAIRBANKS — Only two weeks remain for Alaska sex abuse victims to file claims against the Fairbanks Catholic Diocese.
The Dec. 2 filing deadline is part of the legal requirements imposed on the diocese when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March after it was unable to settle with 140 plaintiffs who filed claims against the diocese for alleged sexual abuse by priests and church workers. The abuse claims dated from the 1950s to the mid-1980s.
Since the diocese began advertising the upcoming deadline, more than 70 new claimants have come forward alleging sexual abuse by a church associate, Diocesan chancellor Robert Hannon said.
The diocese has run its last ads on Alaska public radio, in newspapers around the state and papers in Seattle; Spokane, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; and USA Today. It anticipates more claimants coming forward in the final two weeks.
Chris Cooke, an attorney with an Anchorage law firm that represents 220 claimants to date, stressed the importance of the Dec. 2 deadline for people contemplating coming forward.
If anyone has a legitimate sexual abuse claim against the diocese and doesn't come forward by Dec. 2, their right to make a claim is terminated after that date, he said.
"It can't be overemphasized," Cooke said. "There aren't going to be any exceptions. It's just like applying for the Permanent Fund Dividend or Limited Entry."
According to Cooke, the claimants who have come forward in the past four or five months have widened the circle of people in areas affected by previously identified chronic abusers.
"However, we have had people calling from other locations and new offenders and communities where we didn't have clients before," he said.
Cooke said the new claimants are coming forward for a variety of reasons in addition to the looming final deadline.
"They didn't know about it, hadn't ever talked about it before and didn't feel comfortable talking about it," he said. "But seeing other friends and family members making a claim gave them the strength to go forward with it and feel more comfortable doing it."
Cooke said money hasn't been a dominant factor with these recent claimants.
"For one thing, we don't have any idea of what the outcome will be. We don't know the assets of the diocese. We can't promise anybody anything," he said. "These people have gained a willingness and strength to talk about it and are wanting the facts to be known."
As the deadline nears, the diocese continues to actively organize its assets and is in mediation with one of the main insurers during the time frame when the abuse took place.
"Roughly half of the people fall in the time when we weren't insured," Hannon said. "The other half of the time we had various carriers, but the largest segment of this other half fell in the time frame when CNA (Continental) was the diocesan carrier. We're a pretty poor diocese, and most of the time we didn't have insurance."
Since litigation began with the first plaintiffs in August 2002 and the first lawsuit against the Fairbanks diocese was filed in 2003, the diocese has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on legal fees, Hannon said. "We don't have an accurate figure."
"We're trying to liquidate all of our real estate or get loans or mortgages and put it in a pot for claimants, and we're talking with our insurance carriers and are in discussion with the Committee of Claimants," Hannon said.
There are still many unanswered questions regarding the diocese's assets that won't be resolved until lawyers from both sides hash it out in court.
"We're hoping our insurers will cooperate and step up to the plate and do what they need to do," said Ronnie Rosenberg, the diocese's legal coordinator.
According to Rosenberg, questions yet to be resolved include whether bequests of money or property donated to the diocese for specific purposes such as programs or endowments will be included in the settlement.
"We are asserting that parish property belongs to the parish," she said.
Forty-seven Catholic parishes are located in the sprawling diocese, which encompasses almost a half million square miles from the Alaska Range to the Arctic Ocean, bounded on the east by the Canadian border and on the west by the Bering Sea.
In the 1950s and until 1966, it was one of just two dioceses in Alaska — the other was Juneau in Southeast Alaska — and its boundaries were even larger.
Of those 47 parishes, only seven or eight are self-supporting, Rosenberg said.
"The endowment isn't used like elsewhere for building projects or programs. Here it's used for the day-to-day operations, for basics such as fuel, wages, ministry programs, transportation," she said.
But after more than half a decade of dealing with the tragedies of the past, the diocese welcomes resolution and continues to urge any person who was abused to come forward by Dec. 2.
Rosenberg pointed out that the procedure is easier now without litigation or depositions.
Making a claim can be done in several ways. People may consult an attorney appointed by the bankruptcy court; fill out a form on the diocese's Web site cbna.org or retain a private attorney.
For additional information or to obtain a proof of claim form, call toll free in the U.S. at 1-888-570-6269, which includes access to a Yup'ik speaker, or download the forms from www.dioceseoffairbanks.org and follow the directions to the link.
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