Christian Brothers File for Bankruptcy

Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala
April 29, 2011

Over the past eight years, our attorneys have settled more cases against the Congregation of Christian Brothers than anyone else in the United States. During that time we have gathered an extensive amount of evidence regarding their sexual abuse of children in both the United States and around the world, going back to the 1940s.

Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Force Christian Brothers to Declare Bankruptcy

(New York) – The Congregation of Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order, has filed for bankruptcy protection over allegations that its members sexually abused scores of children in the United States and Canada. Last year, the Congregation of Christian Brothers came under fire over a report by the government of Ireland that its members sexually abused thousands of children in that country.

Although the Christian Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection in New York, under the name of the Christian Brothers Institute, the majority of the active lawsuits were filed over allegations of sexual abuse at schools and orphanages the Brothers owned and operated in Washington state and Canada.

Seattle sexual abuse attorney Michael Pfau, who filed ten of the active claims in Washington state and has settled more than 50 others against the Christian Brothers in the past eight years, claims the Brothers filed for bankruptcy in an effort to shield their assets in Rome. “Ever since they came to the United States the Christian Brothers have accumulated money and assets for their headquarters in Ireland and then Rome. It is a worldwide organization that doesn’t want to be held responsible, either legally or financially, for what it knew its members were doing to children in the United States and Canada.”

At one point, the North American Province owned or operated more than a dozen orphanages and schools around the United States and in Canada. Currently, its Brothers staff schools across the United States, including Brother Rice High School in Chicago, O’Dea High School in Seattle, and Damien Memorial School in Hawaii.

According to Pfau, it is unclear how many victims may come forward as a result of the bankruptcy filing. “The Christian Brothers came to New York at the turn of the last century and they slowly moved West. They operated schools in many states, including New York, Chicago, Montana, Washington, California, and Hawaii. Given the severity of sexual abuse we have seen in their internal documents, and their cover-up of that abuse, it is difficult to imagine how many children were likely abused at their schools.”

The Christian Brothers are the second Catholic religious order to declare bankruptcy in the last two years over claims that its members sexually abused children. Just last month, the Oregon Province of the Jesuits announced it had settled the claims of more than 450 victims who came forward after it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

According to Pfau, who represents nearly 150 victims in the Jesuit bankruptcy, the two bankruptcies are similar because both orders are alleged to have frequently sent abusers to places where they could molest orphans or children from broken homes. “This Christian Brothers organization has caused irreparable damage to a staggering number of children who were entrusted in their care. They made money taking over the care of children, but put many of their members who were known abusers in charge of them. Nobody else was there to protect them. The results were predictable and horrific, and then they tried to cover it up. This bankruptcy is just another effort for them to avoid responsibility for this tragedy.”

Pfau acknowledges the bankruptcy will lead to closure for abuse victims, but fears the Christian Brothers may try to use it to hide the full story of their alleged abuses. “The bankruptcy should be beneficial to victims in terms of providing some amount of closure, but it is frustrating to the extent it will allow the Christian Brothers to further conceal a century-worth of wrongdoing.”

More than Fifty Claims in Washington State Alone

In the past eight years, the Christian Brothers have faced more than fifty cases in Washington state over allegations of sexual abuse at schools they jointly operated with the Seattle Archdiocese.

Briscoe Memorial School

Approximately thirty-five of those claims arose from allegations of sexual abuse at the now-defunct Briscoe Memorial School, which was an orphanage and boarding school located a short distance from Seattle. Briscoe was owned by the Seattle Archdiocese and jointly operated by the Archdiocese and the Christian Brothers.

In the five active cases regarding Briscoe, the plaintiffs allege physical and sexual abuse at Briscoe was rampant. For example, they claim that by the early 1950s, two of eight Christian Brothers who had worked at Briscoe were removed after they admitted to molesting children. According to the plaintiffs, the conditions only worsened and the abuse of children continued. In total, more than thirty-five men have alleged they were sexually abused by various Christian Brothers at Briscoe between 1940 and when the school finally closed in 1970.

O’Dea High School

While the Briscoe cases involve allegations against a number of Christian Brothers, the organization has also faced more than a dozen claims over allegations of sexual abuse by one former Christian Brother, Edward Courtney.

According to an internal document filed with a Washington court, the Brothers first learned of abuse by Courtney in the late 1960s. Over the next several years, they transferred him between four schools in Chicago and Michigan, removing him each time over allegations of child abuse. In March 1974, minutes from their Provincial Council show the Brothers voted to prevent Courtney from having contact “in any way, shape or form” at his prior schools,” but a little over a month later, they debated whether to make him a groundskeeper or send him to O’Dea High School in Seattle. In September 1974, they voted to send him to Seattle.

Over the next four years, internal documents and testimony on file with the court show the Christian Brothers and the Seattle Archdiocese learned that Courtney was molesting students at the school but did not remove him. For example, in approximately 1975, the school’s principal, vice-principal, and religious superior were confronted with allegations that Courtney had molested a student. A year later, an internal visitation report described how Courtney was a “constant source of anxiety” for the school’s principal who “cannot ignore complaints coming to his office.”

Courtney was not removed from the school until 1978. According to the Provincial at the time: “This past spring of 1978 there was another confrontation of parents with (sic) Principal telling of three incidents during the year when their son had been abused. We were pretty well at the end of our options at this point.” The same letter acknowledged the danger that Courtney posed to children: “I do not believe he should be teaching at all and that he would be much better off physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually anywhere except in a teaching Congregation.”

Despite this conclusion, the principal of O’Dea, John McGraw, wrote Courtney a letter of recommendation and praised him as a “tremendous asset” who “would be an excellent addition to any school’s administration.”

Jason Amala, a Seattle sexual abuse attorney who works with Pfau on the Christian Brothers cases, believes the evidence they have discovered demonstrates the severity of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, particularly within the Christian Brothers. “The public needs to know this was more than negligence. This was a deliberate disregard for children. They knew he molested children at four different schools and then they sat down and voted on whether to make him their gardener or to send him to another school. They unanimously agreed to send him to another school and kept him there for four years while they knew he was molesting kids. When he finally left, they wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation. It was criminal.”

Amala also believes the evidence regarding Courtney sheds light on a common defense the Catholic church has asserted during the abuse scandal, that it believed abusive clerics could be treated. “The Christian Brothers sent Brother Courtney to two psychiatrists and they knew he continued to re-offend, sometimes while in treatment. Rather than deny him any further access to kids, they shipped him to Seattle and sent him to a third and fourth psychiatrist. He kept re-offending, they knew it, and they did nothing. We now know the counseling was a calculated way for the Christian Brothers to feign ignorance if they ever got caught.”

Although Courtney left O’Dea High School in 1978, he did not leave Seattle or quit teaching. Instead, the Seattle Archdiocese appointed him as the principal of St. Alphonsus Parish School, a grade school in Seattle. A year later, Courtney was removed from that position after parents complained to the school’s pastor, Jeff Sarkies, that Courtney had molested their sons. Courtney left the grade school after meeting with Sarkies, the Archdiocese’s lawyer, and its Office of Education. According to a letter written by Sarkies to Courtney, they cut a deal. The Archdiocese would keep the matter “quiet” so long as Courtney left immediately. Sarkies advised Courtney that “to alter that course would be to run the very real risk of turning this situation into a cause célèbre thereby doing damage to your name and reputation and that of the school.”

In line with that agreement, the Archdiocese certified Courtney as fit for teaching and wrote him a letter of recommendation. According to Amala, the decision reflects how little Church officials cared about protecting children. “Rather than call the police or take any action against his teaching certificate, the Archdiocese re-endorsed him, wrote him a letter of recommendation, and then cut him loose into the public school system. They were more concerned with protecting their reputation than protecting children in the public schools. Their own letter says as much. And as they knew he would, he kept molesting children.”

In 1982, Courtney moved to the small farming community of Othello, Washington, where he continued working as a teacher. According to the superintendent at the time, “we were impressed with his history of teaching assignments and letters of recommendation.”

After four years in Othello, a boy’s family went to the police with allegations that he was sexually abused by Courtney. Courtney fled to Nevada, but was eventually extradited back to Washington and pled guilty to indecent liberties. He surrendered his teaching certificates, but he never served a day in jail. Last year, Pfau and Amala settled three claims with the Christian Brothers and the Seattle Archdiocese on behalf of three men who were sexually abused by Courtney in Othello.

“The bankruptcy should be beneficial to victims in terms of providing some amount of closure, but it is frustrating to the extent it will allow the Christian Brothers to further conceal a century-worth of wrongdoing.”

Other Documents

2009-10-07 – JB – Plffs Opp to Summary Judgment Motions









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