Nancy Haught and Steve Woodward

Sunday Oregonian
October 10, 2004

Summary: Abuse cases test archbishop as both friend and foe

Friends describe Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny as a man who pulls the car over to pray, who wrote faithfully to his first-grade teacher for 40 years until her death, a smiling "leprechaun" who is the first to leap up and serve hors d'oeuvres at a gathering, the last to finish washing dishes after a parishioner's dinner party.

But for the past three months, he's also been something quite different from the charming and prayerful conversationalist many people have grown to know since he came to Portland in 1997.

He is a man besieged.

On July 6, Vlazny became the first U.S. archbishop to declare bankruptcy in the wake of multimillion-dollar lawsuits triggered by clergy sex-abuse scandals.

Sex-abuse plaintiffs criticize Vlazny for the bankruptcy, contending that it not only lets the church avoid responsibility to them but also makes the alleged victims look like uncaring predators. With the blessing of the archdiocese, parishes throughout Western Oregon have banded together, hiring lawyers to shield themselves from the potential fallout of his actions. And Vlazny has been forced to rely on his own small army of lawyers to steer the archdiocese through the bankruptcy and to spar with sex-abuse plaintiffs and insurance companies.

"People often say to me, 'I'm praying for you,' " he wrote Sept. 23 in the Catholic Sentinel, a newspaper that is distributed among the nearly 400,000 Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of Portland.

"I usually respond, 'I'm praying for you too!' "

The church's problem, he wrote, belongs not just to him, but to everyone in the archdiocese. But, as he acknowledged in sworn testimony before a U.S. bankruptcy trustee in August, the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy places the ultimate responsibility for the archdiocese's well-being on his shoulders.

"In the end," he said of the bankruptcy during his testimony, "it becomes my decision."

The bankruptcy filing itself, in reality, was Vlazny's final major financial decision. From now on, all big money decisions belong not to Vlazny, but to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris, a 20-year veteran judge who is not Catholic.

Conversations with the Vatican

When Vlazny decided to seek Chapter 11 reorganization in bankruptcy court, he said in an interview a few weeks afterward, he was afraid of losing his job.

His boss was the pope, the spiritual leader of the world's estimated 1 billion Catholics. The decision to risk upsetting the Vatican wouldn't be an easy one.

Nevertheless, Vlazny, who had hired a bankruptcy lawyer 18 months earlier, felt he had no choice but to seek legal protection from creditors. His longtime friend, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, followed suit on Sept. 20, placing the Diocese of Tucson in bankruptcy court in Arizona. No other diocese has declared bankruptcy, although several reportedly are weighing the option.

Vlazny has hesitated to detail his conversations with the Vatican about the bankruptcy. But Dennis Composto of Chicago, a friend of Vlazny's for 41 years who talks to him frequently, dismissed two theories about the Portland archbishop's decision: that Vlazny acted with full approval of the Vatican or that he surprised Rome altogether.

Composto said Vlazny met beforehand with the papal nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the pope's diplomatic representative to the United States. Vlazny said Montalvo wanted to know how the church would operate under Chapter 11 bankruptcy rules.

Composto said Vlazny told him that bankruptcy appeared to be the best way to preserve the assets of the archdiocese for a fair distribution to all plaintiffs, while keeping the church alive for what he called its No. 1 mission: evangelization.

Last month, after his interview with The Oregonian, Composto was accused of financial misdeeds in a lawsuit filed by the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he had worked as a comptroller. Though Composto and Vlazny share a Wisconsin vacation home that is cited in the suit, the Chicago Archdiocese said Vlazny was not involved.

Sex-abuse victims' advocates see a more selfish agenda in Vlazny and the bankruptcy.

"When I hear him on TV saying he's doing the most he can, I just laugh," says Kathleen Schmitt, a member of the Oregon chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the nation's main victims' advocacy group. "He's doing everything to protect the church's reputation and church's finances, not the survivors."

Differing views of Vlazny

Vlazny, by most accounts, is exactly what he seems: a sincere, caring, humble pastor with a striking laugh -- and no fear of tough tasks.

"He's small and jolly and plays the accordion," says Theresa Willett, an All Saints parishioner and former chairwoman of Catholic Charities, "but he has a backbone."

Supporters agree on his positive qualities: a sense of humor, compassion, a collaborative style, an ability to delegate responsibilities, humility, a propensity to listen to and mull over all the facts before making decisions.

"Whatever he carries in the burdens of the day, he sure doesn't show it," said Ted Winnowski, chairman of the board of regents at the University of Portland. "He strikes a balance between being a devout teacher and a CEO."

In Portland, sex-abuse victims perceive a much different Vlazny, one who, despite his talk of reconciliation with them, shrinks from contact and considers them the enemy.

Jimmy Clarizio, an abuse victim whose third and final settlement payment from the archdiocese has been held up by the bankruptcy, says the first payment set a cold, impersonal tone.

"They simply sent me a check in a blank envelope," Clarizio said. "There was no personal letter of apology or anything like that from Vlazny."

Vlazny doesn't deny that he has human flaws. He calls himself thin-skinned. He says he makes mistakes, gets annoyed, becomes angry. He acknowledges that he needs to work more on his communication skills.

But the leader of Western Oregon's Catholics insists that he's sincere when he says he wants to compensate and reconcile with sex-abuse victims.

"I have learned from experience," he wrote in March in his weekly column in the Catholic Sentinel, "that you can never say 'I'm sorry' too much."

On an Ember Day last Wednesday, a traditional day of penance and thanksgiving, Vlazny called on Catholics throughout the archdiocese to fast and to pray for the healing of victims and their reconciliation with the church.

"Quiet time for spiritual reading and reflection will allow us to bond more closely with those who are particularly aggrieved by the sins of our brothers," Vlazny said of the Ember Day in his Sept. 23 Catholic Sentinel newspaper column.

Bill Crane, the Oregon director of Chicago-based SNAP, which claims 35,000 members nationwide, protests that the archdiocese doesn't notify victims directly about the Ember Day ceremonies.

"They never communicate with us," Crane said. "I still find that disappointing."

An approaching storm

Seven years ago, Vlazny had come to Oregon as leader of the Archdiocese of Portland at the behest of Pope John Paul II. Within three years of his arrival, the archdiocese found itself the target of dozens of lawsuits alleging that its priests had abused children and that some of Vlazny's predecessors had covered up or ignored the abuse.

The claims cost the archdiocese dearly: $53 million to settle more than 130 claims. Two cases that weren't settled, seeking $135 million and $24.3 million, were scheduled to go to trial July 6, the day the archdiocese entered bankruptcy court. An additional 60 or so cases claiming at least $200 million in damages awaited settlement or trial. Untold numbers of potential lawsuits lurked in the shadows.

Vlazny already knew the unpredictable consequences of jury trials. In 1990, during his previous assignment as bishop of Winona, Minn., a six-week clergy-abuse trial showed every indication that the diocese was winning. But the jury sided with the plaintiff, awarding $855,000 in compensatory and $2.7 million in punitive damages. A judge later reduced the punitive damages to $187,000.

On the day before the bankruptcy filing, Vlazny met with his advisers one last time. The meeting began at 6 p.m. and lasted, according to Vlazny, one hour and 33 minutes.

He laid his bankruptcy recommendation on the table.

"At the 11th hour, I knew I had good people here, some unique experiences among the bishops," he said. "I talked to other bishops and peers, and they were supportive. They didn't tell me what to do in my own archdiocese, but they said, 'No, we understand very well.' "

The vote was unanimous: Vlazny's advisers backed his call for bankruptcy.

Turmoil in Minnesota

Vlazny has been tried by fire before.

During the mid-'90s, while he was bishop of Winona, the National Catholic Reporter newspaper reported that the southern Minnesota diocese of 140,000 Catholics was in turmoil.

Not only had the diocese lost a large judgment in a priest sex-abuse case, but it also was struggling with open dissension between priests and Vlazny's right-hand vicar general, the Rev. Gerald Mahon.

One priest, the Rev. William Kulas, remembers that priests who crossed Mahon sometimes faced reprisals. Some were given difficult parish assignments, some left parishes for psychological treatment, some threatened lawsuits, and some left the priesthood altogether.

"Priests, including myself, mentioned it" to Vlazny, Kulas said.

The situation came to a head in 1993, according to the National Catholic Reporter, when priests objected to attending sex-abuse healing services run by Mahon, who himself had been accused by two seminarians of sex abuse.

Although Vlazny believed Mahon to be innocent of the abuse accusations, he followed his lawyers' advice and approved the payment of less than $100,000 to settle both cases.

The settlements upset Mahon.

"I knew he loved me," said Mahon, now a pastor in Rochester, Minn. "I was disappointed. I understood the advice, but it didn't change the fact that I was angry.

"But in the end, he was very respectful of my expression of my feelings. And that was no surprise. I felt very comfortable disagreeing with him."

Vlazny told the National Catholic Reporter that he regretted paying money to settle what he believed were false claims.

"I did make mistakes that I wouldn't make now," Vlazny acknowledged to The Oregonian.

All kinds of decisions

The Rev. Chuck Lienert, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Portland and the archdiocese's former vicar for clergy, says Vlazny makes tough decisions all the time.

"Most of the decisions that he makes are upsetting to some group," Lienert said. "After consulting as much as he feels is appropriate, he'll make a decision and realize with a sense of regret that some people will be angry about it."

One fairly easy decision was to adopt a suggestion by SNAP's Crane: creation of a support group, led by a licensed professional therapist, to counsel sex-abuse victims in the Portland Archdiocese.

Vlazny also has approved revisions in the 15-year-old archdiocesan child-abuse policy to comply with the June 2002 child-protection charter developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Revisions included appointing someone to oversee child-abuse policy and reports.

This week, the U.S. bishops' conference will conduct a routine audit of the archdiocese for compliance with the charter. Last year's audit showed the archdiocese in full compliance.

Despite victories with the child-abuse policy, Vlazny continues to be distraught in general over the sex-abuse scandal and the bankruptcy it has wrought. He dots his conversations and writings with the words "humiliation" and "embarrassment."

"He's in hell," said his friend Composto, who has hosted Vlazny for decades at his annual family post-Christmas party. "If there is a worse place than hell, he said he's in it."


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