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Scandal may cost parishes

Thu., Feb. 2, 2006

With a $45.75 million settlement offer on the table to pay victims of clergy sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane now faces a new dilemma: how to pay for it.

Bishop William Skylstad and his attorneys remain hopeful that six insurance carriers will put in tens of millions of dollars toward the settlement. Anything less and the diocese confronts the difficult task of asking parishioners to pay by selling churches and schools.

It remains a troublesome aspect of the scandal for some 97,000 Catholics in Eastern Washington. “Will my church be sold?” asked attorney Ford Elsaesser, who represents the Association of Parishes.

Skylstad on Wednesday didn’t offer an estimate of how much parishioners may need to give. Nor would the bishop promise Catholics that schools and churches would not be sold to fund the settlement, saying only that the diocese would “cross that bridge” later. The diocese has only $10 million in cash and property at its disposal. The parishes are worth untold millions more.

“I call on the entire Catholic community to support the resolution I’ve proposed,” Skylstad said during a noon press conference at the chancery. “As we move hopefully toward a global settlement, we as a Catholic community are willing to shoulder our fair share of the burden and to take responsibility for a significant portion of the total anticipated expense of the settlement.”

More than a year after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the bishop offered a settlement this past week to 75 victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Attorneys and a committee of five victims recommended approval of the deal Tuesday night. They plan to meet individually with the rest of the victims to explain the offer’s details and solicit approval during the next four months.

No one will be forced to accept the claim, said James Stang, lawyer for the victims. If the 75 victims do not unanimously approve the deal, negotiations will continue. The settlement offer also must be approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. The Association of Parishes withheld support of the settlement offer. It was left out of the negotiations.

“We can’t say one way or the other until we can be assured parishes won’t be liquidated and what amount of money will be needed,” said Elsaesser.

“At the end of the day, (the bishop) has to tell Catholics ‘This is your target,’ ” he said. “There just simply has to be protections from the outright sale of parish property, and we don’t have that.”

Parishioners anticipate making a “substantial and meaningful contribution,” likely in the range of $6 million to $10 million, Elsaesser said.

But selling parish property to settle diocese claims is an emotional and hotly contested issue within the association, which aims to push ahead with its appeal of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams’ ruling that parish property is held in trust for the benefit of the diocese and thus available to settle claims.

The Rev. Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s vicar general, said several Catholic entities in Spokane have been “invited to participate” in the settlement agreement, but no commitments have been made.

“We want to be in solidarity with our church but we have to be careful to maintain our corporate separateness and the stewardship we’ve been given to help the poor,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities.

Any aid provided by Catholic Charities would have to come in the form of a loan with interest and must be approved by the nonprofit’s 12-member board, he said. Simply giving money to the diocese “would be a misuse of our nonprofit status.”

Yet Catholic Charities, Catholic Cemeteries and other church-associated groups are facing complex legal challenges within the context of the diocese bankruptcy. Victims contend the nonprofits belong to the diocese – much like the parishes. The issue is pending in the bankruptcy court, said Catholic Charities attorney James King.

The bishop’s settlement offer to victims averages $610,000 per person, though the victims committee will set up its own method of assigning dollar amounts to claims. As important was a list of reforms and initiatives designed to protect children and prevent future cases of abuse, Stang said during a Wednesday press conference at the Davenport Hotel.

Those “noneconomic conditions” include:

Reporting the names of admitted and credibly accused perpetrators on the diocesan Web site;

Increasing the Diocesan Review Board by two members whose appointments must be approved by victims of clergy abuse;

Allowing victims to tell their stories of abuse each month in the Inland Register, the diocesan newspaper;

Eliminating the use of “alleged” each time diocesan officials and attorneys refer to victims of abuse.

During his press conference two hours later, Skylstad spoke with both humility and hope as he addressed victims of abuse and the broader Catholic community.

“First and foremost, I want to publicly apologize for and on behalf of myself and the Catholic Church in this diocese for the terrible wrongs that were inflicted upon you in the past,” Skylstad told victims, many of whom were in the room. “I can only hope and pray that, with today’s announcement, we can together begin to take the first small steps toward reconciliation and forgiveness.

“I apologize for the fact that this day has been so long in coming.”

The bishop also addressed those who have expressed their anger over the abuse, as well as the bankruptcy proceedings. “I ask for your forgiveness and for your prayers,” he implored. “For those who feel this settlement will be a burden for the next several years, a burden we can’t as a church afford, I would say that this scandal is a burden we can no longer afford not to resolve.”

The bishop noted that this proposed settlement is not the end, “but the beginning of the end.”

The diocese still needs to reach a settlement with claimants who are not part of the group of 75 victims. It’s not clear how much more money that will require. In addition to the 75, the diocese is aware of another 15 claims. Joe Shickich, who represents many of those victims in the bankruptcy, said he expected Skylstad to offer equal terms.

The settlement offer does not affect the March 10 deadline for victims of sex abuse to file claims against the diocese.

Attorneys for the diocese also did not have a figure Wednesday for the total amount spent so far on the bankruptcy proceedings. Skylstad said he has no regrets about filing for bankruptcy.

“This is, for me, a moment of hope,” he said. “A moment to address healing and reconciliation … a moment of gratitude.”

The whole process has been even tougher for victims, said Mark Mains, one of three brothers sexually abused by Patrick O’Donnell, a priest who has admitted to molesting more than a dozen boys

“There’s no euphoria, no celebration for me,” Mains said. “But I’m relieved to know that this is something to promote healing and to help protect children in the future.”

Mike Pfau and Tim Kosnoff, the two Seattle lawyers at the lead in the case, commended their clients’ courage to come forward and speak about the crimes committed against them.

Pfau said that victims believed the diocese attempted to divide them by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “They wanted to wear them out,” he said. “Ironically, the bankruptcy had the opposite effect.”

He and Kosnoff have represented people throughout Eastern Washington who had been molested as children by Catholic priests, Mormon church officials, Boy Scout leaders and others in power. “Looking at all these cases globally reveals some very dark things,” Pfau said.

The two now plan to focus on allegations of sex abuse surrounding Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. “We will leave no stone unturned finding out what happened at that place,” Kosnoff said.

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