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Diocese won’t add ruling by Vatican to case

A lawyer defending Spokane’s Roman Catholic diocese from lawsuits filed by alleged sex-abuse victims said Thursday a recent Vatican statement vindicates the diocese’s position that it doesn’t own Spokane parishes.

But the attorney representing those victims against Spokane’s diocese disagreed, saying the Vatican statement – telling the Archdiocese of Boston that it has no claim on its parish assets – has no bearing in a high-stakes legal battle about to be decided by a Spokane federal bankruptcy judge.

Shaun Cross, the Spokane attorney representing the Spokane diocese, said the Vatican statement is relevant, but he also said it won’t affect the legal case.

“We have no current intention to take the step” of adding the Vatican statement to the legal case, Cross said.

Vatican officials told church leaders in Boston they have no authority to claim the assets of several parishes being closed there by Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Dioceses in Spokane, Portland and Tucson, Ariz. – which filed for bankruptcy protection when faced with numerous sex-abuse lawsuits – similarly have claimed their dioceses don’t own the assets of their parishes and parochial schools.

If U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Patricia Williams rules against the Spokane diocese, the 70 or so plaintiffs suing the church here can pursue settlements and trial judgments against the diocese’s entire collection of assets, including 16 schools and more than 80 parishes.

If the judge rules in favor of the diocese, its net worth would come to much less; the diocese estimates it has assets of about $25 million, which includes about $15 million in insurance policies.

“What the Vatican has done is positive for the diocese of Spokane, and it reaffirms the position Bishop (William) Skylstad has consistently taken, that he does not own the parishes,” Cross said.

James Stang, a Los Angeles lawyer representing the victims in the Spokane case, said the Vatican statements reflect internal church rulings – called canon law – that have nothing to do with the legal issues Judge Williams is reviewing.

The Vatican’s statements, reportedly made orally to Boston church officials over the past few months, resulted from Boston-area parishes filing appeals with the Vatican over their announced closures.

The closures in Boston have nothing to do with sex-abuse lawsuits in that city, Cross said.

Lawyers for those Boston parishes pointed to the positions taken in Spokane, Portland and Tucson, arguing that it was unreasonable for O’Malley to claim ownership of parish assets at the same time Western bishops were claiming they don’t control parish assets.

Cross said that, at the least, the Vatican statement about Boston’s archdiocese “eliminates the inconsistency” that existed across the country in regard to parish ownership.

“Shaun Cross is entirely wrong,” said Stang. “We’ve never said we want to argue with the diocese about what its ‘club rules’ are” or over the way bishops control parish properties.

Instead, Stang said the victims believe civil laws clearly indicate the diocese owns the parish properties. “Every single deed says the (parish) property belongs to the bishop of Spokane,” Stang said.

Among the legal arguments made by Stang to the bankruptcy court is a reference to the claims made by O’Malley in Boston that the archdiocese there has full authority to claim parish assets.

Stang said that reference was done “with a little sense of irony,” to show that what the bishop of Spokane is saying is “diametrically opposed to what his brother bishop is saying in Boston.”

The Rev. Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s vicar general, declined to comment on the Vatican’s Boston statements.

Williams has said she intends to issue a ruling on parish ownership around Sept. 1.

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