Bishop Deposed in Church Lawsuits
By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
September 19, 2013
GALLUP — After a last-ditch legal maneuver was denied by an Arizona judge, Bishop James S. Wall of the Diocese of Gallup submitted to a deposition Wednesday by two attorneys who have filed 13 clergy abuse lawsuits against the diocese.
Wall’s deposition was held in Albuquerque and was accompanied by the deposition of the Rev. Alfred Tachias, a longtime Gallup priest. The depositions took place as scheduled because the diocese has yet to file its Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition, a move that will halt the proceedings in the civil lawsuits.
However, at least for the time being, the contents of Wednesday’s depositions are confidential, over the objection of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Robert E. Pastor of Phoenix and John C. Manly of Irvine, Calif.
“Bishop Wall and Father Tachias gave statements under oath today,” Pastor said in an email Wednesday evening. “We are not permitted to discuss the content of their testimony because at the outset of the deposition the Diocese of Gallup designated the testimony confidential. We noted our objection and found it odd that the Diocese would make the testimony confidential before the witnesses even testified. We hope that one day all of the facts surrounding clergy sexual abuse of children in the Diocese of Gallup will be shared with the faithful Catholics of the diocese.”
The depositions were scheduled as part of Pastor and Manly’s first clergy sex abuse case against the Gallup Diocese, which is scheduled to go to trial in February in Coconino County Superior Court in Flagstaff, Ariz. The case involves abuse allegations against the Rev. Clement Hageman, who is deceased. Tachias formerly worked as an assistant pastor under Hageman.
In Masses held over the Labor Day Weekend, priests in the Gallup Diocese read a letter from the bishop, announcing plans to seek Chapter 11 reorganization because of increasing numbers of clergy sex abuse lawsuits and claims.
Although diocesan attorneys haven’t yet filed the bankruptcy petition, they did file a last minute motion for protective order on Sept. 11. In the motion, attorneys Robert P. Warburton and Keith Ricker requested Wall’s and Tachias’ depositions be postponed until the week of Oct. 21-25, and they argued for a “pre-filing stay of pending litigation,” which they said would help conserve the diocese’s “scarce financial resources and would leave more money to fund compensation of victims of clergy sexual misconduct.” In addition, the motion stated, the proposed stay would also give the diocese more time to ensure that its Chapter 11 filing would be as complete and accurate as possible, and it would allow the diocese’s recently hired bankruptcy attorney, Susan G. Boswell of Quarles and Brady, LLP, the opportunity to take her “long planned trip to Spain” from Sept. 7-20.
“Plaintiff’s counsel refused to agree to the proposed stay and insinuated that Bishop Wall’s decision to file for reorganization was simply a tactic to avoid being deposed,” Warburton and Ricker stated.
In response, Judge Robert Budoff made the unusual move of conducting a weekend hearing on the motion Saturday, Sept. 14. Although Pastor and Manly’s first clergy sex abuse case is being heard by Judge Mark R. Moran, Budoff, a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge, is serving as the discovery special master in the case. Budoff then made a quick ruling against the Gallup Diocese, which put Wall and Tachias back on Wednesday’s deposition calendar.
In his Labor Day Weekend announcement, the Gallup bishop promised to be “open and transparent” throughout the Chapter 11 process. He also promised to consult with his diocesan attorneys in order to answer a list of questions submitted by the media. Ultimately, however, Wall declined to answer the media questions and just emailed a short statement that repeated much of what was stated in his Chapter 11 announcement.
Wall declined to answer how the planned bankruptcy will affect one clergy abuse lawsuit, filed by a Navajo woman from Gallup, in which the diocese is a co-defendant with two Franciscan provinces that are separate from the diocese’s Chapter 11 reorganization.
Wall did not explain where the diocese has been getting money to pay clergy abuse settlements in recent decades. He also did not explain nor has he ever explained how much money the diocese has paid in clergy abuse settlements, including money to victims and legal fees to diocesan attorneys. These are figures that a number of other dioceses have publicly released.
Although the Gallup Diocese is quick to announce it is one of the poorest dioceses in the country, it is also believed to own considerable property in Arizona and New Mexico. Wall did not respond to a question about the sale of that property to meet Chapter 11 obligations. He also did not say if the diocese will now undergo a new and thorough audit because of the bankruptcy and the recent departure of James Hoy, its longtime controversial chief financial officer.
The bishop did not explain how the diocese will determine which clergy sex abuse allegations are truly credible an ongoing concern for a number of Gallup priests. He did not say when he would finally publicly disclose information about credibly accused abusers — a promise he made more than four years ago. Nor did he say if he would release documents pertaining to credibly accused abusers, and whether he would ever turn over information to law enforcement officials about the whereabouts of living, credibly accused clergy.
However, in contrast, the Gallup Diocese’s unsuccessful motion for protective order did provide some answers about the number of clergy sex abuse claims the diocese is currently facing and the potential financial liability of those claims.
“Of the thirteen lawsuits at least eight are completely uninsured and coverage for the remainder is limited to the $100,000 per claim statutory cap of the New Mexico Property and Casualty Insurance Guaranty Fund,” the motion stated. “In addition, there are another eight pending claims that are not in litigation and upon information and belief, numerous other claims of clergy sexual misconduct that have yet to be asserted against the Diocese.”