Claims' Cost Surprises Catholics

By Maya Blackmun
February 23, 2004

Summary: Parishioners and plaintiffs react to the Portland archdiocese's update on sex-abuse cases, with some upset by a letter's wording Catholic parishioners expressed surprise, and men who say they were sexually abused by priests reacted with anger Sunday to the Portland archbishop's most recent comments about what the claims have cost the Archdiocese of Portland so far.

During the weekend, churches began providing copies of a letter in which Archbishop John G. Vlazny said the archdiocese and its insurers have paid $53 million to settle priest sex-abuse claims dating from 1950 to 2003.

The update from Vlazny comes as information about more than 50 years of priest sex-abuse statistics is being revealed nationally, with a diocese-by-diocese report covering the nation expected to be released Friday.

Doris Gibson of Southwest Portland, a parishioner at St. Clare Catholic Church since 1959, was startled by the magnitude of the settlements. She at first thought the $53 million represented a national total, not just for the Western half of Oregon covered by the Portland archdiocese.

At an afternoon news conference, plaintiffs who have settled claims against the archdiocese expressed outrage at Vlazny's letter.

Allan Bell, a plaintiff who accused Thomas Laughlin, a defrocked priest from the archdiocese, of sexual abuse, said Vlazny's letter offended him with a tone that seemed to discount what happened decades ago.

Bell said he also was disappointed by Vlazny's latest letter compared with what the archbishop had said previously.

"He apologized to survivors but seemed to backtrack with this statement," Bell said during the news conference at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

In his letter, Vlazny wrote, "Some of you have asked how we know the archdiocese is not paying on claims that are exaggerated or even false. We don't know -- we can only do our best in a challenging legal situation."

Jimmy Clarizio, another plaintiff who accused Laughlin and who has settled with the archdiocese, was livid.

"I think very few people are making this up," Clarizio said.

The archbishop was in Washington, D.C., and unavailable for comment, said Bud Bunce, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

David Slader, a Portland attorney, said Sunday afternoon in a telephone interview that he plans to file a complaint today on behalf of two men against the archdiocese and the Rev. Joseph Baccellieri.

Slader said the two men claimed Baccellieri abused them in the late 1960s or early 1970s when they were students and he was their teacher at Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland.

Bunce said Baccellieri had retired some time ago from serving in the archdiocese, but he wasn't sure of the date. He had no comment on the allegations, saying archdiocese officials hadn't received them yet.

Baccellieri could not be located for comment. Slader said he could find no prior claims against Baccellieri.

Parishioners learning Sunday the financial toll of the settlement were concerned both for the archdiocese's finances and the sexual abuse victims.

Susie Hanson, 43, who has attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Southeast Portland on and off since she was born, said she's worried that the archdiocese will face more financial trouble.

"Good Catholic people will have to pay for that," Hanson said.

The archdiocese has settled with 133 people. Vlazny said 48 claims are pending. An archdiocesan insurance fund has paid slightly more than half of the costs with the remainder coming from other church resources or loans, Vlazny wrote.

Hanson said she's been troubled by how the archdiocese can respond to decades-old allegations when some of the priests have died or are incapacitated because of Alzheimer's disease.

Al Lucero of Southeast Portland, a Sacred Heart parishioner for 23 years, thinks some plaintiffs are "getting on the bandwagon" in hopes of getting money, and the archdiocese "is paying off without any facts."

Having coffee and doughnuts with other parishioners later, Hanson said it's been hard to deal with the "weakness" of men who are "sick puppies" molesting children in a church steeped in mystery and tradition.

Standing outside the brick St. Clare Catholic Church in Southwest Portland, Mary Boucher said she hopes restitution is offered but that it can never fully compensate for the harm done. She also wants the church to prevent abuse from happening again. And she wants to be sure that any priest in need of help for a problem gets it.

"It's a delicate balancing act," Boucher said, "to make sure justice happens."


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