Cost of sexual-abuse lawsuits against archdiocese considered

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

As more lawsuits are filed accusing priests in the Seattle Archdiocese of sexually abusing minors years ago, plaintiffs' lawyers, parishioners and others are asking questions about where the money will come from for court costs and any settlements.

Late last month, six more lawsuits were filed against the Seattle Archdiocese, which now faces a total of at least 14 suits representing about 30 alleged victims.

Lawyers for some of those accusers say the archdiocese has not been forthcoming with information, including which insurance companies might be responsible for payouts.

Seattle Archdiocese officials, though, say finding out such information is complicated.

"This information is not on the tip of our fingers," said Pat Sursely, director of finance and administration for the archdiocese.

Money for settlements, church officials say, comes primarily from insurance companies, with the accused priest typically paying part of the settlement, depending on his resources.

The difficulty, they say, is figuring out which insurance companies are responsible.

The complications come because the lawsuits filed in the past year allege abuse that happened years ago, mostly in the early or mid-1970s. In most cases, the insurance carriers at that time would have to pay any settlements — whether they continue to provide coverage or not.

Back then, individual parishes had individual policies, Sursely said. Not until the late 1970s or early 1980s did the archdiocese centralize its insurance policies. Today its insurance carrier is Catholic Mutual Group, based in Omaha, Neb.

To find out which insurance companies would be responsible for court costs and settlement payouts, the archdiocese must find out exactly when the alleged abuse occurred, what parish that priest was in at the time, which insurance company was then covering the parish, whether that insurance company still exists, who still has copies of the policies, and what — exactly — those policies covered.

Mike Grady, a member of Puget Sound Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics who want more lay involvement in church governance, has said one of his main concerns is finding out "who's paying for all these court cases. If it's coming out of parishioners' pockets, we need to know how much."

Sursely reiterated what church authorities have insisted in the past: that contributions to the church today are not in any way paying to settle past abuses.

Those insurance premiums were already paid back in the 1970s, he said. And those premiums were typically part of general insurance coverage that would have to have been paid for whether there were sexual-abuse lawsuits or not.

"The premiums people (are helping) pay for now to Catholic Mutual — there are no lawsuits related to that," Sursely said. "What we're dealing with now are lawsuits from the past and with insurance from the past, with premiums paid by people way back in the 1970s and '80s."

Lawyers representing alleged victims suing the Seattle Archdiocese, though, express doubts that it should take the church so long to come up with insurance information.

"The archdiocese has been stonewalling" on revealing anything from insurance carriers, to how much past cases have settled for, to how many accusations have been lodged against certain priests, said Bellevue attorney Timothy Kosnoff, who is representing several alleged victims in suits against the archdiocese.

Tacoma attorney Michael Pfau, who also represents several of the alleged victims suing the Seattle Archdiocese, has filed motions with the court to compel the archdiocese to come forward with information.

Relations between dioceses nationwide and their insurance carriers could also become contentious.

Since the sexual-abuse scandal first began breaking nationwide early this year, some church officials have wondered whether the increasing number of lawsuits might not spur insurance companies to raise premiums and limit liability.

Another possible complication is that insurance companies could balk at the payouts. At issue is whether church officials knew about, but never fully informed, insurers of potential risks.

"We haven't had a situation where (a settlement) was not covered by insurance or the priest himself," Sursely said.

Adding to the potential for more lawsuits locally is a movement in this state for a one-year moratorium on statutes of limitations on when lawsuits can be filed claiming childhood sexual abuse.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or [email protected].

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