A federal judge ruled that the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, its law firm Paine Hamblen, and one of the firm’s attorneys, Gregory Arpin, are in contempt of court for using intimidation tactics against a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams stopped short Tuesday of issuing costly sanctions, but ordered the diocese and its attorneys to pay what will be expensive legal costs of the trustee and others.
She delivered a curt order designed to blunt future threats from the diocese while clearing the way for the trustee, Gloria Nagler, to pay people who have shown they were sexually abused by Catholic clergy.
A $48 million settlement for victims of clergy sex abuse reached in 2007 left open what the diocese assumed would be the slight possibility of new claims, called future claims.
There have now been at least 21 of these new claims, brought by people who say they were sexually abused by clergy decades ago – a number that has surprised the diocese and its legal team. There have been no accusations of recent abuse.
Some of the claims already have been allowed by a special case reviewer, although the diocese is pursuing an appeal.
Despite the appeal, the Bankruptcy Court judge ordered Nagler, the trustee, to proceed with payments on the future claims. Arpin sent an e-mail to Nagler threatening to sue the trustee personally if the diocese won its appeal after she had paid the claims, according to court records.
Williams ruled that the e-mail constituted a threat.
John Munding, an attorney from a separate firm that also represents the diocese, said that while the contempt ruling is disappointing, the diocese respects the judge’s opinion.
The diocese filed for bankruptcy in late 2004, one of the first Catholic entities in the country to do so as dozens of people began filing lawsuits, hiring attorneys and telling disturbing stories to the church hierarchy and the public regarding decades of sex abuse by clergy.
The diocese has posted on its Web site the names of 27 diocese priests, Jesuits and members of other Catholic religious orders who ministered in the region and sexually abused children.
A total of 184 victims came forward to file claims. Churchgoers paid $10 million of the $48 million settlement. The diocese worries that these new claims are bogus and could drain a special $1 million fund within the settlement that must be replenished. Parish property has been pledged as collateral to ensure the settlement funds are adequate.
Confidentiality orders in the case prevent the disclosure of the names or other information about alleged victims.