April 18, 2007 in City

Victims, parishes back deal

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In a development one attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane called “a miracle,” every victim of clergy sex abuse involved in the diocese’s bankruptcy and every one of its Catholic parishes has voted in favor of a $48 million bankruptcy settlement.

The surprising vote tally filed in court records Tuesday indicates that serious reservations church members have expressed about high-dollar payouts and the potential sale of churches and schools couldn’t outweigh the appeal of a mediated exit from the crisis.

“To have gone through all the ups and downs and travails of this case over a period of over 2 1/2 years, and with all the emotions that have been involved … to see 100 percent of all the victims and 100 percent of the parishes and all the creditors involved in this case vote unanimously for this plan is in my mind a miracle,” said diocese lawyer Shaun Cross.

Almost 250 votes were cast by sex-abuse victims, parishes and service providers to the church.

The vote may bolster the expected confirmation of the settlement and related bankruptcy plan by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams next week.

Steve Barber, who was allegedly abused as a boy by the now-defrocked priest Patrick O’Donnell, said he voted in favor of the deal rather than pursue further litigation against the diocese.

“Basically we were asked to accept the only thing they would give us,” Barber said. Victims are ready to move on after years of legal maneuvers, he added.

He was among the 161 people with abuse claims who were eligible to vote.

Ford Elsaesser, an attorney representing the Association of Parishes, called the vote an important marker. Once parish leaders and priests were able to look to the future and all of the intangible risks of expected lawsuits and expenses, reaching the deal became more palatable, he said.

“It’s a compromise situation that certainly some people out there think it’s too much money, and there’s some on the claimants’ side that think it’s too little,” Elsaesser said. “But it is an achievable obligation.”

The vote doesn’t reflect two objections filed by parishioners this week.

One, filed by retired attorney Leo Driscoll, expressed concern that the plan allowed payment of some claims without requiring evidence of abuse or without showing that the diocese knew about and did nothing to stop abuse by clergy.

Driscoll also criticized the handling of the case, including the legal fees that were associated with an earlier settlement offer rejected by Williams.

As part of his objection, Driscoll disclosed that he helped hire Williams years ago into his law firm as a clerk, and later as a lawyer.

A second objection has been filed by parishioner Larry Miller, who took issue with the settlement cost to parishes and the lack of laity involvement.

He said parishioners have been led to the settlement as “the dumb sheep who will follow the shepherd anywhere and do what we are told or asked of us.

“That may have been true 75 to 100 years ago, but today, the laity is well-educated and many have equal or better backgrounds in theology, philosophy and canon law, as well as business and civil law, than do many priests and bishops.”

Miller questioned whether the parish association – mostly made up of priests and parish council leaders – was truly representative of the laity.

Such criticism has been a common thread among church members who have said they wanted more say, perhaps even a vote at each parish, on whether to support the settlement.

Elsaesser disputed the notion of a parish association beholden to the wishes of Bishop William Skylstad, recalling the association’s fight against an initial settlement offer the bishop made to 75 victims last year.

“Despite rumors that the Roman Catholic Church is hierarchal, this was a decision from the ground up. Not the top down,” he said. “It’s hard for me to believe that all these (parish) councils would agree if there was overwhelming opposition in the pews.”

The Spokane diocese is among five across the country that have filed for bankruptcy protection. What makes this case unusual is the reliance on a $10 million contribution from parishioners.

Other dioceses have large investment holdings that are being used to pay abuse settlements without asking parishioners for cash donations. The Spokane diocese is cash-strapped by comparison, having to sell most of its assets, along with pooling together insurance settlements and contributions from other Catholic organizations.


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