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Spokane diocese ads will seek out abuse victims

The Catholic Diocese of Spokane will spend $160,000 on an advertising campaign asking people who believe they may have been sexually abused by priests to file claims.

The ads will appear in USA Today and in the Jan. 8 Western edition of Parade magazine, which is inserted in major West Coast newspapers. Also, the diocese is running advertisements in daily and weekly newspapers in Washington state.

It’s part of a diocese effort to determine how many people were abused by clergy in Eastern Washington.

Those filing claims can keep their names confidential as part of a privacy order signed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams. The deadline to file claims is March 10.

The advertisements dovetail with notices mailed to people who attended Catholic schools in Eastern Washington. The letters list eight priests by name who the diocese says have been credibly accused of sexual abuse, though two of the eight priests deny the accusations, said Greg Arpin, an attorney representing the diocese.

The list, however, angered some victims who already have filed claims against the diocese alleging abuse by priests who are not included on it. Among them: the now-deceased Rev. Joseph Sondergeld.

The priest had served in both the Yakima and Spokane dioceses and has been accused by several people of abuse.

The language of the notice was vetted by every attorney taking part in the bankruptcy case. The diocese stressed that it is not trying to mask the identities of suspect priests.

“Quite the opposite,” said diocese attorney Shaun Cross. “We’re seeking finality to this case and trying to find out everything we can.”

Already the diocese has attempted to settle the case for $35 million. It was apparently rejected by alleged victims.

The settlement offer was disclosed in a Nov. 29 letter to parish leaders, which was copied to Bishop William Skylstad. The letter, written by three prominent Spokane lawyers, inquired about the settlement offer and how it was arrived at.

The authors of the letter also said they “have unrest, grave concerns, and questions as to the direction of the overall proceedings” of the bankruptcy case. The attorneys who signed the letter were Eugene Annis, Leo Driscoll and Frank Hayes Johnson.

Asked this week about the settlement offer mentioned in the letter, lawyers in the case responded, “No comment.”

None of the attorneys would elaborate on the offer nor confirm or deny if it had been made.

Since that offer was reportedly made, The Spokesman-Review has confirmed that a successful settlement will need to be in the $40 million to $50 million range. That’s an average payout of $500,000 to $625,000 for the approximately 80 victims pressing claims of abuse.

The sides refuse to discuss settlement efforts in any detail; the diocese, however, is amending its bankruptcy plans to include far more details. The amended plan will be filed by Jan. 16, unless all sides agree to award more time.

Judge Williams sharply criticized the diocese for the plan’s shortcomings in a November court hearing.

Also next week, creditors’ committees in the case will submit a list of 40 parish properties to be appraised.

The appraisals could help more accurately estimate the value of the diocese and determine which, or if, some properties should be sold or mortgaged to help the diocese raise enough money to pay creditor claims.

Though the diocese is abiding by the court’s appraisal order, it is simultaneously appealing Judge Williams’ ruling that parish property is owned by the diocese and therefore available as an asset to satisfy bankruptcy claims.

The diocese maintains that church and state laws hold that parish properties are not owned by the bishop and cannot be liquidated to settle claims.

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