Published: Friday, December 22, 2006
Advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests are analyzing thebankruptcy settlement plan proposed by the Archdiocese of Portland andasking themselves: Where is the justice?
The bankruptcy, filed on the eve of trials that would haverequired church officials to testify about what they knew and whatactions they took concerning abuse by priests, is aimed squarely atpreventing accountability by church leaders, says David Clohessy,national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The proposed bankruptcy settlement also appears to effectivelyblock the payment of large punitive damage awards - meant as adeterrent to continued bad behavior - to victims who reject theout-of-court settlement, go to trial and win such an award from a jury.
The lack of financial and personal accountability by churchofficials hurts not only the victims, but also leaves church memberswithout answers about how the abuse by priests continued over manyyears and whether church officials are taking effective steps to stopit, Clohessy said.
"It's not about the money," Clohessy says. "It's all about thecoverup. The number one thing we hear from every victim we see is: `Ijust want to make sure this doesn't happen to somebody else.' "
The proposed bankruptcy settlement, announced last week,provides out-of-court payments to all but 26 claimants in 170 lawsuitsby people alleging sexual abuse by priests of the archdiocese. Theproposal uses almost $52 million from insurance companies, churchassets and loans secured by church property to pay the settlements andto set up two trust funds - one for the 26 unsettled claims and one forfuture claims not yet filed.
The proposal does not require the sale or encumbrance ofproperties or funds of the archdiocese's 124 local Catholic parishesand schools to pay victims of abuse, according to court documents.
All lawyers, claimants and church officials connected with thebankruptcy case and abuse lawsuits are under a federal judge's gagorder barring them from explaining or discussing specifics of the planuntil it is approved by the federal bankruptcy court, a process likelyto take several months.
However, court documents indicate the plan's structure willprevent a victim from collecting a large punitive damage award from thearchdiocese because punitive damage awards would be paid only after allother awards for compensatory damages to all other claimants - and onlyif funds remain in the trust account.
That means both compensatory and punitive damage payments forthe 26 unsettled claims must come from a trust account that, under theplan, will contain no more than $13.75 million. Considering that thetrials of the two claims that triggered the bankruptcy in 2004 soughtmore than $155 million in compensatory and punitive damages, the trustaccount appears
underfunded, critics say.
"As far as I know, punitive damages are basically off the tablein the settlement because everyone has to get paid their compensatorydamages before anyone gets a dime of punitives. What that basicallydoes is remove all incentive to go for punitive damages," says BillCrane, director of SNAP in Oregon. "Church leadership aided and abettedserial child rape for decades, and they continue to land on their feetunscathed."
The bankruptcy plan is typical of the "very brutal legaltactics" that are common in the church's response to sexual abuseclaims nationwide, says Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest of the Dominicanorder, author and longtime critic of bishops' handling of the issue.
Doyle, 62, worked in the Vatican's U.S. Embassy in the 1980s whenhe was assigned to monitor a priest sexual abuse case unfolding inLouisiana. He has studied, written and testified about the topic eversince and is co-author of the book "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes."
In the book, Doyle followed the church's records of childsexual abuse by priests back to the fourth century. He concluded theproblem is neither a current aberration nor a passing phenomenon, butsomething the church hierarchy has covered up all along.
Doyle says he believes that the problem is not one of politicsor public relations, although those have been the responses of churchleaders. By embracing a bankruptcy procedure, the archdiocese isdodging the real issue and casting itself as a victim of "greedyvictims," Doyle says.
"What the victims want most is justice. This sidesteps the justice," says Doyle, who lives in Vienna, Va.
"What you have here is a fairly sophisticated example of whathas been common - duplicity toward the victims," Doyle said. "Thisstuff has been going on for centuries. They've never been forced toanswer for what happened. There is no guarantee that in anothergeneration this isn't going to happen again."
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