Beset by Sex-abuse Lawsuits, Christian Brothers Catholic Order Files for Bankruptcy

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times
April 28, 2011

Briscoe Memorial School near Kent closed in about 1970. Some former students said they were abused at the school.

The Congregation of Christian Brothers in North America, the religious order that runs Seattle's O'Dea High School and other schools around the country, filed for bankruptcy Thursday, becoming the second Catholic order in the U.S. to do so because of sexual-abuse claims.

The order did not say how many claims are pending against it, but attorneys for victims estimate there are more than 50 claims.

In the U.S., most of the cases come from the Seattle area, stemming from abuses at the now-defunct Briscoe Memorial School near Kent.

Several cases also involve Edward Courtney, a former brother who taught at O'Dea and was principal at St. Alphonsus School in Seattle.

The Christian Brothers Institute, which represents the business and financial interests of the order in North America and is based in New Rochelle, N.Y., filed for Chapter 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York, according to a statement released Thursday.

Leaders in the order did not return calls for comment but said in the statement that "deficit spending and litigation costs have forced CBI into this action."

The order has been running an annual seven-figure deficit and its trustees voted unanimously to file for bankruptcy, the statement said.

The bankruptcy filing is not expected to affect O'Dea High financially, since the school is owned by the Seattle Archdiocese, which essentially hires the Christian Brothers to run it, said Seattle Archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni.

Accusations of sexual abuse, beatings

The number of claims pending against the Christian Brothers is not large especially compared to the Jesuits in the Northwest, which declared bankruptcy in 2009 with some 200 pending claims.

But the Christian Brothers is also a far smaller order, with about 250 brothers serving in the North American province, which covers the U.S. and Canada.

The order was founded in 1802 by Irishman Edmund Ignatius Rice and is known for its education work. In contrast to priests, who are ordained and can celebrate sacraments such as the Eucharist and Reconciliation (commonly called confession), brothers are not ordained and cannot administer such sacraments.

In the U.S., the order's only boarding school was Briscoe, which operated from 1909 to about 1970. Originally an orphanage, Briscoe began receiving state funds and took in boys from troubled homes. At one point, it also took in day students.

In recent years, dozens of men have said they were sexually and/or physically abused as students there. Teachers beat them severely, they said, sometimes with leather straps or fists, other times with wooden paddles while they were naked in the shower.

They also told of boys being taken from their beds at night by teachers, of being accosted in bathrooms, of being forced to engage in oral sex.

Their accounts spanned the 1940s through the 1960s.

"Most of the abuses occurred with the most vulnerable children who had nowhere to turn and no one to tell," said Seattle attorney Michael Pfau, who has represented more than 50 people abused by Christian Brothers and has an additional 10 cases pending.

Those 50 cases settled for $25.6 million. Standard attorneys fees on such settlements range from 33 to 40 percent.

Rome's role

Pfau said one question he will explore as the bankruptcy proceeds is how much back-and-forth there was of documents and money between the province and the order's worldwide headquarters in Rome.

He's already received documents that show Rome knew at various points that brothers in the U.S. were being removed because of sexual abuse of minors, Pfau said.

And "we believe money may have been transferred between Rome and the United States," he said. "We intend to look to Rome to pay for the abuse of the children."

Of Pfau's 10 pending cases, five involve Briscoe and five involve Courtney, the former Christian Brother.

Courtney taught at O'Dea from 1974 to when he was removed in 1978 after several parents complained that he was abusing their sons. Courtney served as principal of St. Alphonsus from about 1979 to 1980.

Court documents show some church leaders knew for years that Courtney sexually abused students, yet allowed him to continue teaching at school after school.

The Christian Brothers and Seattle Archdiocese have already settled a number of cases involving Briscoe and Courtney.

Canadian, Irish, Australian cases

In Canada, most of the claims stem from Mount Cashel Orphanage, which was run by the Christian Brothers and closed in 1990. It was located in the city of St. John's in Newfoundland and Labrador province.

In the 1990s, the order in Canada dissolved to help pay a multimillion-dollar settlement with some 90 people abused at the orphanage. It subsequently merged with Christian Brothers provinces in the U.S. to form the North American province.

There are about 40 cases pending alleging abuse at Mount Cashel, according to Geoff Budden, an attorney in St. John's representing most of those victims.

Institutions run by Christian Brothers in other countries have also been the subject of widespread sexual-abuse claims.

In Ireland two years ago, a government commission issued a report detailing decades of systematic physical and sexual abuse of children at some 200 Catholic schools in Ireland and cover-up by church authorities. The Christian Brothers ran a good number of those schools.

In Australia in the 1990s, more than 250 former residents of boys homes filed suit, saying they'd been beaten and sexually abused.

Janet I. Tu: or Information from The Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.