Oregon judge announces mediated settlement to pay sex abuse claims
By Ed Langlois
Catholic News Service
EUGENE, Ore. (CNS) -- The Archdiocese of Portland will not need to selloff parish or school property under terms of a settlement between thearchdiocese and almost 150 sex abuse claimants.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan stood with church officials andvictims' lawyers Dec. 11 in a federal courthouse in Eugene to say theclaims were settled after more than three months of arduous privatenegotiations.
Among the resolved cases is the $135 million suit that in 2004 pushedthe archdiocese to become the first Catholic archdiocese or diocese inthe nation to file for bankruptcy. About 20 claims remain, but Hogansaid he expected those to be settled in the coming days.
"We do not anticipate any parish property or school property to beliquidated or contributed or collateralized to fund the joint plan,"said the judge, calling that result "the good news" of the day.
Hogan gave no cumulative dollar amount for the settlement. At one pointlast year, abuse suits against the Archdiocese of Portland added up tomore than $500 million.
Agreements reached with the archdiocese's insurers will bring more than$50 million to the settlement. Nonparish and nonschool real estate islikely to be sold to help pay the rest, Hogan said.
Lawyers for the claimants and the church are still under a gag orderplaced by Hogan and the other federally appointed mediator, OregonCircuit Judge Lyle Velure.
The archdiocese, a committee of victims and a panel representingpossible future victims will file a joint plan of reorganization Dec.18 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Portland. The plan will set out how thearchdiocese will pay claims and emerge from bankruptcy.
The plan is subject to approval by creditors, including clergy sexabuse victims, to whom the archdiocese owes money. Loose ends of thebankruptcy could continue into next spring. Hogan said he hopes to havethe case closed by May 1.
The proposed plan calls for a new corporate structure for the CatholicChurch in western Oregon, with parishes and schools set up as legalcharitable entities separate from the archdiocese.
Lawyers for abuse victims had insisted that the archdiocese ownsschools and parishes. That would have made much more money availablefor claims.
But from the onset, Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny and other churchleaders pointed to church law, which holds that parishes and schoolsown their assets. Any parish or school funds held by the archdioceseare held in trust, church officials said.
Hogan thanked lawyers from both sides for "prodigious and cooperativeefforts" in a mediation process he called "rough and ready."
The archdiocese's legal and professional bills for the bankruptcy casehave already reached about $16 million. An earlier round of mediationfell apart last year. The current talks began in August and tookhundreds of hours.
"Some problems are difficult enough and complicated enough that theparties should not miss the chance to try to find a resolution in thisway," said Hogan. "Some people say complicated cases are tougher. Idon't think so. I think they call out for this sort of mediationprocess."
The interests of western Oregon's 400,000 Catholics were an importantpart of the mediation, Hogan said, along with interests of thearchdiocese, insurers and victims.
"These settlements were all voluntary," Hogan said. "That doesn1t meanmore healing time is not necessary in this very difficult situation."
The archdiocese will continue to meet with claimants and in some casesoffer to pay for counseling. The settlement calls for a prayer servicethat will include thanksgiving for the resolution and for all peopleinvolved, including victims and their attorneys.
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