Abuse victims may sue parishes

Move could provoke confrontation Catholics hope to avoid

John Stucke
Staff writer
July 28, 2006

People who were sexually abused when they were children by Catholic clergy in Eastern Washington are considering suing parishes and might even explore the legal liability of individual churchgoers.

Such a move could ignite worries among the laity and steer the bankruptcy case of the Spokane Catholic Diocese in a direction that alleged abuse victims and parishioners have hoped to avoid since early on in this case: a direct confrontation.

What could be lost in the tangle is about $20 million worth of insurance money that the diocese stands to collect and distribute to abuse victims once the bankruptcy case is closed.

The timing could be sensitive. All sides are preparing for the case's first substantive mediation beginning Aug. 21.

"Suing the parishes at this time would be an act of bad faith and an outright attempt to intimidate parishioners," said Ford Elsaesser, an attorney representing the Association of Parishes. "It won't work, so I hope it's not true."

Lawyers for abuse victims either declined to comment or could not be reached Thursday afternoon. In public forums, including radio talk shows, meetings and statements to the press, victims have expressed anger that the bishop "reneged" on the settlement and have allowed parishes to exert financial independence that they claim was never the case before the diocese filed for bankruptcy.

Two recent court decisions have buoyed the parishes and stung a group of abuse victims who first came forward with sex abuse allegations several years ago, which exposed decades of priest pedophilia and church leadership blunders. Changes followed, yet most sex abuse victims have yet to be compensated.

The first decision that went the parishes' way was the court rejection of a $45.7 million settlement that Bishop William Skylstad signed with a group of 75 victims. The terms left parishes with deep financial exposure, perhaps tens of millions of dollars.

The second was a sweeping appeal ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush, who determined parishes were unincorporated associations rather than controlled and owned by the diocese. After the decision, the bishop formally rescinded the offer.

During his ruling, Quackenbush urged mediation but noted that parishes could be sued.

With their multimillion-dollar settlement slipping away, abuse victims are seeking to regain momentum. They met this week to discuss strategy.

Suing the parishes would require a few legal steps.

Abuse victims would first ask U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams to temporarily lift a stay, or postponement, of lawsuits that are pending in state court against the diocese. These lawsuits – which initially drove the diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy – would be amended to add defendants such as parishes. Adding individual churchgoers would be unprecedented, but not out of the question.

There are currently 97,000 Catholics within the Spokane Diocese.

Determining how much money the 82 parishes will pay continues to be the hurdle to solving the case. The diocese has between $30 million and $35 million it can pay. The parish association has talked publicly of adding another $7 million to that.

However, the 75 abuse victims expect no less than the $45.7 million dangled by Bishop Skylstad. And if there's another 75 to 100 victims to pay, the numbers jump dramatically and jeopardize the financial stability of parishes.

Other victims simply want their day in court to confront the Catholic leaders whom they blame for facilitating and covering up years of sexual abuse by priests.

If the parishes or churchgoers are sued, they at least want access to the $20 million of insurance money to pay defense costs.

"The way it is drafted now, the money is to be used to pay certain victims, which is fine as long as parishes aren't sued," Elsaesser said.

Diocese attorney Shaun Cross said the diocese has been advised that abuse victims may be on the verge of suing parishes. That would further hinder the final resolution of the case, he said.

"It probably won't generate a lot of positive feelings among the Catholic community," Cross said.

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