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Diocese will try to settle lawsuits

Sun., Oct. 31, 2004

Attorneys for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane will try to reach a settlement during mediation this week with 28 victims of clergy sex abuse.

If the two parties fail to reach an agreement, the diocese may be forced to declare bankruptcy, according to a letter from Spokane Bishop William Skylstad that arrived Saturday at the homes of many Spokane Catholics.

One option is to go to trial, Skylstad wrote. “Another option, which could bring fairness, justice and equity to the victims and enable the diocese to continue its ministry and mission would be to file for re-organization under Chapter 11 of the United States bankruptcy code.”

Two dioceses in the country – the Archdiocese of Portland and the Diocese of Tucson – have filed for Chapter 11. The Portland decision was made in July, the same week a lawsuit was scheduled for trial. In September, the Tucson diocese followed suit, saying it needed court protection because of the cost of clerical sex abuse cases.

The victims who have filed lawsuits or claims against the Diocese of Spokane were allegedly molested by Patrick O’Donnell, a priest who has admitted to sexually abusing boys from the time he was in seminary. O’Donnell, 62, worked as a priest for the diocese until he was removed from ministry in 1986. One of the plaintiffs, a widow of a man who ended up killing himself as a result of the abuse he suffered as a boy, filed a wrongful death suit against the diocese earlier this year.

“The plaintiffs have no expectations,” said Michael Pfau, one of the attorneys representing the victims. “We’re certainly going to listen to what the church has to say, but we’re fully prepared to go to trial.”

The first of five lawsuits alleging that the diocese didn’t do enough to protect children from O’Donnell is scheduled for trial Nov. 29.

The mediation, which will take place in Seattle and is standard procedure before going to court, is happening just two weeks before the national meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – a gathering in which Skylstad is expected to be elected president of the powerful group of church leaders.

Several of the plaintiffs suing the Diocese of Spokane will be traveling from Eastern Washington for the negotiations, which are scheduled to last four days.

Pfau, their counsel, is the same attorney who garnered an $8.6 million settlement for 16 victims who sued the Archdiocese of Seattle for the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Rev. James McGreal. That payout was one of the highest average per-plaintiff settlements in the country since the sex-abuse scandal erupted two years ago. Fifteen of the plaintiffs settled for $7.87 million in 2003, but one held out until the week of the trial and received about $730,000 – more money than the average for his co-plaintiffs.

“I finally got them to take responsibility for their actions,” the victim, identified only as M.W., told the Seattle Times in April of this year.

If mediation works this week, savings in court fees would be significant, the Rev. Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s vicar general, said in an e-mail.

Also participating in the negotiations will be six insurance carriers for the diocese, he said. When the local scandal first broke two years ago, not all of the insurance brokers had committed to provide coverage to settle the claims. Written policies for the 1970s – the period of time when O’Donnell allegedly molested a number of boys in the diocese – were destroyed in a flood more than a decade ago, diocese officials have said in previous interviews. (The diocese is currently insured by the Catholic Mutual Group, the largest self-insurance fund for Catholic dioceses in the country.)

Between 1985 and January 2003, the Diocese of Spokane settled six lawsuits involving eight victims, with an average settlement of $60,000. Money for those settlements came from either the diocese’s insurance company or the accused priests.

Since then, the diocese has settled five more claims, said Dublinski, who didn’t provide additional details on the recent settlements. One settlement was reached in July 2003, but the alleged victim didn’t want the diocese to release his name, the settlement amount or even the name of his abuser. Another was made in September 2003 and involved a $50,000 payment to an unidentified man who was allegedly abused 25 to 30 years ago by diocesan priest James O’Malley, who now lives in Ireland.

The Spokane Diocese now faces 19 lawsuits involving 58 plaintiffs. Two of the plaintiffs are named in two lawsuits because they claim to be victims of both O’Malley and Joseph Knecht. The accusations are against nine diocesan priests and two Jesuits. Of the 11, three are dead, Dublinski said.

“There may well be more lawsuits,” wrote the vicar general. The diocese has received reports involving 125 people. More than half were allegedly abused by O’Donnell and O’Malley, dating back more than 30 years.

“Bishop Skylstad has continued to ask victims to come forward, to seek reconciliation and healing,” said Dublinski, who noted that people seeking reconciliation and healing should contact the diocese’s victims’ assistance coordinator.

During the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the diocese spent about $625,000 – 8 percent of its total disbursements – to resolve victims’ claims, according to the diocese’s finance report published in the Inland Register earlier this year. More than half that amount – $346,068 – went to legal fees. The diocese, which has hired the Gallatin Group, a local public relations firm, also has spent $251,704 on communications. About $27,400 went toward victims’ counseling and assistance.

Right now, the diocese is completing its annual audit, Dublinski said, and those figures should be available in the next few weeks.

Criticism from within

While many Catholics in the region continue to support their churches and bishop, some have been critical of the way the church has treated victims and have even accused the local diocese of a cover-up.

Those people also don’t think Skylstad, who once supervised O’Donnell when he was pastor of Assumption Parish, where many of the victims were abused, should become the president of the conference of bishops.

Catholics throughout the country look to the bishops as a moral compass, said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

After the sex abuse crisis, the bishops’ conference “benefited tremendously” from the reputation of Bishop Wilton Gregory, the current president, and his handling of the problem in his own Diocese of Belleville, Ill., said Clohessy. “Common sense tells us the reverse is also true: The conference’s credibility will be hurt” by the way Skylstad has treated the victims in Spokane and his involvement in the O’Donnell case, he said.

Clohessy said Skylstad and other church leaders could learn from Bishop Paul Gregory Bootkoski, of the Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey. Bootkoski, who was installed as bishop in March 2002, was praised by the Survivors Network last year for cooperating with a prosecutor in the criminal proceedings against an abusive priest and refusing to let the priest wear his Roman collar in court. According to SNAP, which has praised him as “the model bishop in America for supporting clergy sexual abuse victims,” Bootkoski did the right thing by appointing victims to his review board, settling eight lawsuits that were apparently time-barred by the statute of limitations, apologizing to each of the victims and involving the laity in diocesan decisions.

Spokane’s bishop, who is the current vice president of the bishops conference, has been praised by Catholics for his vision and leadership. He is one of 10 candidates for the presidency and is up against bishops from much larger cities, including Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan; Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis E. George; and Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, whom he edged out for the vice presidency three years ago.

Both president and vice president are elected by a simple majority. But traditionally, the vice president has been elected as the leader, said Bill Ryan, of the bishops conference’s Department of Communications.

Because of the upcoming efforts at mediation, Skylstad declined to be interviewed for this story.

“Bishop Skylstad has been, and continues to be, committed to transparency, openness and honesty in his ministry,” Dublinski said. “This is evident throughout his ministry as a priest, as a bishop. He has stated this commitment over and over again, publicly and privately, to individuals and to the news media.”

In response to the allegation from members of SNAP and Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group, that the bishop was involved in a cover-up of the abuse, Dublinski replied: “He repeatedly has stated that he acted on professional advice, the best professional advice available at the time of his decisions in each of these matters.”

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