Compensating for the sins of the fathers
National Catholic Reporter - The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: November 10, 2006
By MICHAEL NEWALL
On a warm Wednesday last May at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Parish here, carefree kids in short pants and skirts file out of ranch-style school buildings. They walk down the shrub-lined walkway and into the dimly lit church. The weekly student Mass begins with the sound of an organ and off-key singing. Some kids daydream; others whisper. The altar girl bites her lip in laughter. Soon, a flush-faced upperclassman races through a reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “God has overlooked the times of ignorance but now he demands that all people everywhere repent.”
Deacon Kelly Stewart, in his soft, reassuring tone reads the Gospel according to John.
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.”
A breeze blows through the rangy pines as the kids shuffle back to class. Parents chitchat about carpools and camping trips. The conversation turns to whispers when someone brings up the bitter bankruptcy battle threatening the existence of Assumption Parish, threatening the existence of the entire
“We sympathize with the victims and feel they should be compensated,” said Linda Morse, who has two children in
“But where does it all stop?” she continued. “When is enough enough?”
Three other mothers nodded in agreement.
“We don’t want to lose what’s ours,” one of the other mothers said, her words wrapped in resentment. “We don’t want to hurt the next generation of kids. Our kids didn’t do anything wrong. This is not their fault.”
Just a short walk across the parish lawn live Terry and Ann Corrigan. They purchased their modest ranch house, the backyard of which adjoins the school ball field, as newlyweds in the early 1970s, thrilled to be raising their children so close to the church.
“If you ripped the skins off our bones, they’d say Catholic,” said Terry Corrigan, a tall, soft-spoken man with white hair and doleful eyes. “The church was our spiritual and social connection.”
The Corrigans both served as Eucharistic ministers. Terry was chairman of the parish council and in charge of sending greeting cards marking the birthdays and ordination anniversaries of all diocesan priests. Ann volunteered at the school, distributing lunch milk. The two boys, Mike and Tim, were in the altar guild, and when the charismatic young priest, Fr. Patrick O’Donnell, arrived in 1974, the Corrigan’s immediately invited him, and the popular pastor, Fr. William Skylstad -- now bishop of
This past Palm Sunday, Terry and Ann sat on opposite edges of their bed after yet another night of restless sleep since the death of their son Tim, who committed suicide on a late summer’s day in 2002, hours after telling his wife that O’Donnell had molested him.
“I can’t go to church today,” said Ann.
“Neither can I,” said Terry.
The Corrigans now say their prayers in the privacy of their home or with other former Assumption parishioners at Voice of the Faithful church reform meetings.
“There’s too much silence on the part of parishioners when it comes to the abuse issue,” said Ann, clutching photos of Tim, whose death sparked the wave of lawsuits at the center of the bankruptcy battle. “I felt like every Sunday we were sitting in solidarity with them, and that was too much to bear.”
“I can’t pray there with those people anymore,” added Terry. “I’ve come to the sad realization that the hierarchy of the Catholic church cares more about money and assets than it does the souls of young people. The institutional church has begun to look more to me like -- somebody once said -- the mafia. And I think the only way to change it is by force.”
He wipes his eyes.
“Realizing that was second only to losing my son,” he said, “which was the worst pain I’ve felt in my life.”
A church divided
The extent of the problem, as well as the deep divisions and questions puzzling the diocese, became apparent in material gleaned from legal depositions as well as dozens of interviews with those involved, including priests, parishioners, church workers, victims and relatives of victims.
While wealthier dioceses, such as
“I’ve heard the phrase ‘death spiral’ quite a number of times,” said one priest. “There’s a growing belief that something cataclysmic could occur.”
Bathed in the shadows of a rambling mountain range and intersected by the
Ping-pong court rulings, what some see as head-scratching diocesan mismanagement and deception, steadfast victim attorneys and deep-seated mutual mistrust have resulted in an intractable situation. As the bankruptcy drags on, and the diocese hemorrhages hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees each month, Catholic organizations like Catholic Charities,
“Spiritual turfism,” is how one church employee described it.
There is a growing, if somewhat subtle, anger toward victims as churchgoers fret over the future of their parishes.
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that Catholic mission in Spokane is not compromised,” said attorney Ford Elsaesser who represents the Association of Parishes, an organization of churchgoers and priests aiming to protect parish interests in the bankruptcy. “Our goal is to protect the blood, sweat and tears of parishioners, people who saved pennies, nickels and dimes to get these churches built.”
Some view the association -- which formed about two months before the bankruptcy and contains members from every parish -- as a diocesan-encouraged creation to manipulate public opinion against victims.
“I can understand their concern about their parishes,” said victim Randy Coston, “But where were they when victims first stepped forward? Nowhere. It’s only after their assets were threatened did they band forces.”
Many priests -- who’ve all taken a $100-a-month pay cut and whose retirement fund has been dipped into for legal fees -- are becoming crackerjack accountants, skilled at explaining complex settlement “matrixes.” (A victim anally penetrated deserves x amount, while a victim manually ejaculated deserves only x amount.) And some men of the cloth here say things like, “I don’t refer to victims as ‘survivors.’ I think ‘legal claimant’ is a better phrase.” Or, “I suspect many of them will get these large settlements and fritter through them in a few days.”
Emboldened by recent court decisions, angered by diocesan hardball tactics and alarmist posturing, and feeling shunned by what they perceive as a lack of parishioner support, victims are considering the unprecedented course of suing individual parishes and even individual churchgoers in parish leadership positions.
“There are no warm and fuzzy feelings here,” said attorney Tim Kosnoff, who represents 101
The once popular Skylstad has been vilified by many who blame the failing bankruptcy on his poor leadership skills and penchant for following terrible legal advice.
“Shakespeare once advised we shoot all the lawyers,” said Fr. Edgar Borchardt, an executive member of the Association of Parishes, with a half-hearted laugh, echoing the frustration of many priests and parishioners interviewed. “I’m beginning to think we should view the bishops in the same way.”
Bankruptcies are typically ugly affairs, with multiple lawyers representing competing interests. But with the backroom tussling and ever-shifting alliances (diocese/Association of Parishes versus victims; diocese/victims versus association; victims versus victims) events here read like the seedy descriptions of old machine-town politics found in a William Kennedy novel.
And, as each day passes,
“This particular chapter of my life has lasted four years,” said victim Mike Corrigan. “I want nothing more than to end it. It’s been a nightmare. Every day is an open sore.”
“It’s been a terrible roller coaster,” adds Molly Harding, director of the
Harding first approached Skylstad in 2001, telling him of her desire to form a Spokane SNAP group.
“Oh Molly, please” she remembers him saying. “We don’t have that problem here.”
“Everybody is looking out west right now,” said Villanova University Professor Charles Zeck, an expert in church finance. “What happens there could have a tremendous impact on how the issue of victim compensation plays out in the years and decades to come.”
‘It’s nobody’s fault’
The morning began like any other.
Cheryl Corrigan awoke before dawn for her daily walk through the winding streets of
“Look who’s in the paper,” he said in his usual unemotional voice.
Cheryl met Tim at the Pizza Haven 22 years earlier. He was 17; she was 20. He was slender with blonde hair and a boyish face. She was attracted to his quiet, steady demeanor.
In 16 years of marriage, Cheryl said she had seen Tim become overly emotional only twice. Once, when a superior at a school where she taught groped her. And, then in 1986, when the first article mentioning sexual abuse allegations against Fr. Patrick O’Donnell appeared.
Newlyweds at the time, they were visiting Tim’s parents. Ann Corrigan’s voice cracked when she asked her sons if O’Donnell had abused them when he taught at Assumption Parish in the mid 1970s.
Tim’s older brother Mike said little that day, telling his devoutly Catholic parents only how O’Donnell would make them stand naked after gym class and scrub their genitals with a washcloth.
Tim said nothing.
“I’m going to put a sign on his door reading ‘child molester,’ ” ranted Cheryl during the car ride home.
“No, you can’t,” she recalled Tim yelled. “You won’t.”
Back in the kitchen, Cheryl picked up the paper, which had a picture of O’Donnell on the front page.
“Read it,” said Tim.
Cheryl glanced over the words.
“Finish it,” shouted Tim.
An elderly couple from another parish claimed O’Donnell molested their son when he was 12 years old -- the same age Tim was when O’Donnell took him and his friends swimming and boating. The couple’s son put a gun in his mouth in 1990. He left a note reading, “What happened to me destroyed me.”
Tim put his bowl in the sink.
“Why’d you make me read this?” asked Cheryl, her mind racing. “Were you abused by Father Pat?”
“Did you get naked in front of Father Pat?”
“Did Father Pat touch you in the privates?”
“That’s abuse, Tim.”
Tim nodded and walked out of the room.
Cheryl’s mind raced.
“I couldn’t believe what he’d told me,” she said, during an interview last spring. “I figured if I pretended we didn’t say anything, he’d make it through his work day and we’d talk when he got home.”
Tim collected his brown bag lunch and Cheryl hugged him as she normally did.
And later that afternoon, when Cheryl returned from her three-year-old daughter’s kindergarten orientation, and the waiting police chaplain told her Tim had lain down on the railway tracks, Cheryl refused to believe it.
The chaplain dialed a policewoman at the scene who read from a hastily scribbled note found in Tim’s truck, which said, simply, “It’s nobody’s fault.”
‘It’s just little old me’
Randy Coston was driving along Interstate 195, heading home to
Coston and Tim weren’t the closest friends of the group but they were the most similar, both equally withdrawn and unemotional. Whenever O’Donnell’s name would come up over the years, usually at a birthday or a wedding with one of the guys uneasily joking about the nude swimming or the jockstrap checks, Randy and Tim were the ones who would go quiet and stare uncomfortably into their drinks.
Coston had told his secrets to no one, not even his wife. It was his burden to carry: O’Donnell with his big, toothy Howdy-Doody smile gleefully steering the cabin cruiser up to
Driving back from Palouse, thinking about the O’Donnell article, Coston decided he’d lived long enough with his secret. He promised himself he’d do something, he wasn’t sure what, maybe contact the authorities or the diocese, but something, anything, to begin to move past the pain.
So, later on that day when he received the call about Tim, he drove to Mike Corrigan’s house and told his secrets. He also told Mike about the time O’Donnell brought him and Tim to a lake cabin with a hot tub. O’Donnell told the boys to take off their shorts so the laundry soap their mothers used would not ruin the water. O’Donnell sat next to Tim, his hands underneath the water.
“I understood why Tim did what he did,” Coston told Corrigan. “He acted on the feelings I had for so many years.”
Over the next few days, as Tim was mourned and buried, Coston and Mike Corrigan, and a handful of other childhood friends, broke their individual silences and shared their stories of molestation at the hands of O’Donnell, which mainly consisted of fondling and genital touching. Soon, they contacted the abuse attorney Kosnoff.
Kosnoff’s investigation unearthed decades of diocesan mishandling and cover-up of sexual abuse allegations.
O’Donnell received his priestly training at the St. Thomas Seminary in
The Sulpicians didn’t inform then-bishop of
In his deposition, Skylstad said he “remonstrated” O’Donnell when notified by a parishioner that the priest was having the boys stand on the auditorium stage and wash their naked genitals after gym class. The two men shared cramped living quarters in the parish rectory. O’Donnell slept in the basement.
“It’s just little old me,” numerous victims remember Skylstad saying when he’d return home upstairs.
“I was completely unaware of the activity he was engaging in with the boys,” Skylstad said recently of O’Donnell at a meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Council. “In those days he was a priest who was a pied piper with kids, was highly admired.”
Skylstad, now president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, left Assumption in 1976 to become
The civil authorities were not notified of the abuse. Nor were the parishioners at Assumption and
The law on mandatory reporting in
“In 2003, after the scandals had broken, Skylstad had a series of meetings with parishioners to explain what was happening with the revelations about Fr. Pat,” Brockett recalled in a recent interview.
“I asked him why he had not reported the abuse. The bishop’s answer was that at that time they were not legally required to report the abuse. My answer was that I thought they had a moral obligation to report, even if they did not have a legal obligation to do so,” Brockett said.
While receiving treatment in
At least eight men say O’Donnell molested them during his time in
Upon returning to
When the new bishop, Lawrence Welsh, was notified of these complaints, he transferred O’Donnell to Holy Rosary Parish in
O’Donnell continued to abuse children until he left active ministry in 1986, when newspapers began reporting on the allegations. In court depositions he has admitted to molesting several boys as a priest. In total, 56 men have filed sexual abuse suits against O’Donnell, making him the most prolific priest-abuser in the region.
O’Donnell, who ran a private psychology practice counseling teenagers in
Skylstad declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.
‘It was a boondoggle’
For two years, diocesan attorneys filed motion after motion to dismiss the civil suits and protect the diocese’s “secret archive” on abusive priests, kept in a gray file cabinet in Skylstad’s office. (Bishop Lawrence Welsh purged many of the files in the 1970s, having them burnt in the chancery basement.)
Just days before the first trial was scheduled to begin, Skylstad, flanked by his attorneys, held a news conference announcing mediation with victims. If a settlement could not be reached, said Skylstad, bankruptcy would likely follow. Negotiations quickly fell apart, said Kosnoff, when the diocese offered victims settlements in the low tens of thousands of dollars, figures drastically below national averages.
“It was a boondoggle,” said Mike Corrigan, “a public relations tactic to shift the blame of the bankruptcy onto the shoulders of victims.”
One day before the opening of the first trial, Skylstad took the controversial step of entering the diocese into Chapter 11 Reorganization in Federal Bankruptcy Court, becoming only the third American diocese to do so since the sex scandals erupted nationwide in 2002. According to federal law, the diocese must submit a reorganization plan, which includes financial settlements with all sexual abuse victims before it can emerge from bankruptcy. If settlements cannot be reached, a federal judge dissolves the bankruptcy and creditors head back into state court.
Skylstad defended bankruptcy as a way to “provide fairness, justice and equity for everyone -- for the victims, and for the diocese as a whole.”
Victims viewed it as a bad faith effort to undercut their resolve, further manipulate public opinion, reduce monetary payouts, and protect church secrecy -- and Skylstad’s career -- by avoiding costly and embarrassing trials.
“It was a desperate ploy to avoid accountability,” said former
Successful negotiations between church officials and abuse victims in the
“Bankruptcy can be a productive way to deal with compensation,” said Charles Zech, a
Moreover, said Zech, bankruptcy treats victims fairly.
“In civil trials, it’s a race to the courthouse with the first victims there getting all the money,” he said. “It should not be based on first come, first served, but rather treating all victims fairly as a group. This way everybody is considered.”
Zech points out that
That has not been the case in
Spokane’s plan heading into the bankruptcy seems to have been twofold: First, stack the committee representing victims with church loyalists, and second, get a federal judge to uphold the untested and shaky legal premise that although individual parishes are listed in the bishop’s name, they’re actually separate entities owned by parishioners, a ruling that would drastically reduce the size of the bankruptcy estate and therefore reduce the size of settlement payouts.
In December 2004, the U.S. Trustee Ilene Lashinsky appointed five individuals to the committee in charge of picking the victim’s legal representation, three of whom were diocesan insiders appointed only after hard lobbying from the diocese, said Kosnoff. One appointee had written a glowing testimonial of Skylstad’s pastoral skills. Another had ties to the law firm representing the diocese.
“The diocese and its lawyers were so arrogant,” said Kosnoff, “so cocksure they had eviscerated us, marginalized us and cleared the way to a sweetheart deal.”
Victims protested in outrage, flooding the U.S. Justice Department with phone calls and e-mails, resulting in the formation of a second committee consisting of victims with active suits against the diocese. If the diocese did indeed lobby for the initial committee, it was a costly error since the
‘Looking forward to dying’
With their new committee intact, victims hired the high-profile Los Angeles-based bankruptcy attorney James Stang, who immediately filed a motion seeking to fold parishes, schools, social centers, and priest retreat centers into the financial estate of the diocese, teeing up the central issue of this case: asset ownership.
Lead diocesan attorney Shaun Cross argued that, according to church law, parishes are independent entities owned by parishioners. This separation is based in a convoluted, centuries-old canon law business structure, which establishes that the bishop is a one-person corporation or corporation sole, holding the parishes in trust, but is not the actual owner of their assets, he said.
Cross also raised the specter of violation of separation of church and state, arguing that examining canon law under the lens of civil judicial scrutiny violated First Amendment freedom of religion constitutional protections.
Canon law should supersede civil law, argued Cross.
“That’s their great hope in this bankruptcy,” said Kosnoff, the victims’ attorney, earlier this summer. “That they could somehow convince a federal judge to overturn 200 years of federal jurisprudence, which holds that no one, including religious institutions, is above civil law.”
It’s indeed a shaky, untested premise, and one that drew fire from many church watchers and finance experts, knowing that a decision here would set precedent for dioceses across the nation.
“The decision to put the issue of parish ownership in play was a terrible, even indefensible, strategic decision,” said Sam Gerdano, executive director of the Virginia-based American Bankruptcy Institute. “They exposed themselves to the very real risk that they would be subjected to an adverse court decision trumping canon law.”
Pursuing the parish ownership issue was the product of “very bad” legal advice, said Gerdano, echoing the belief of many in
If the court found the bishop is not the sole owner of diocesan assets, parishes would gain an unprecedented amount of individual autonomy, overturning hundreds of years of traditional church governance. But, said Gerdano, individual parishes would then become liable for specific abuse complaints. In turn, if the court ruled in favor of victims, settlement prices would explode and all parishes would become liable.
“Now you’re putting in jeopardy some tiny parish 200 miles away from
Cross -- who has become a lightning rod for some Catholic anger in
“The legal strategy has been bungled from day one,” said one attorney. “It would have been much wiser to try and fight the individual suits one by one, losing some claims, and picking off others along the way. Instead, this whole thing has turned into a nightmare, with legal fees in the tens of millions, parishes in legal limbo, and no end in sight.”
“Trials were never an option for Skylstad,” said Clohessy. “Only one bishop -- Bishop Law in
In August 2005, bankruptcy judge Patricia Williams dismissed the diocese’s contention that the bishop did not own parishes.
“It is not a violation of the First Amendment to apply federal bankruptcy law to identify and define property of the bankruptcy estate even though the Chapter 11 debtor is a religious organization,” Williams wrote in her 50-page ruling. “Nor is it a violation of the First Amendment to determine the nature and extent of the debtor’s interest in property by application of state law rather than internal church doctrine.”
A similar decision soon followed in
Attorneys representing the diocese and the Association of Parishes quickly filed an appeal. It was after this decision that the diocese offered victims the $45.7 million-settlement, of which parishes were expected to raise $15 million-$20 million. Parishes served as collateral if the diocese defaulted on payment and were offered no assurance that they would not be closed or mortgaged even if they met individual fundraising goals.
Priests and parishioners reacted in uproar.
“They were out of their minds offering that much, said Fr. Jim Kuhns, an association member and pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Spokane’s affluent South Hill community. “That’s six hundred and ten thousand a claimant, an unreal individual average, and certainly not an appropriate number for the very limited resources of this diocese.”
When entering bankruptcy, the diocese listed assets of $11.1 million and liabilities of roughly $81 million. The $45.7 million offer, would severely drain the diocesan’s priestly retirement fund, from which $3 million has already been taken.
“Right now, I’m looking forward to dying,” said Fr. Borchardt of the association, “and in the afterlife, in the mystery of God, I hope it will somehow become clear to me how we were expected to pay that settlement.”
Borchardt is the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in
“Even if we somehow raised double that for this settlement,” said Borchardt, “we’d still be at risk of being liquated. How could I sell that to my parishioners?”
Attorney Bob Hailey, a folk choir leader at St. Mary’s Presentation Parish in
In recent years, St. Mary’s raised about $1 million to build a new parish church, since the present one is too small for many parish functions. The money was placed for safe keeping in the diocesan deposit and loan account, which was then frozen in the bankruptcy, and which would be used to fulfill the $45.7 million-settlement offer.
“We have no idea if we’ll ever get the money back to build our new church,” said Hailey. “And we could lose the church we have now.”
During an interview in his law office overlooking downtown
“Six hundred ten thousand would fall within the top 11 percent of all settlements nationwide,” he said. “Those dioceses had considerably more money than we do, and were mostly states that allowed for punitive damages, which greatly increases the sizes of the payouts. The average settlement nationwide is $291,000.”
He then pulled out a matrix sheet of
If parishioners raised $8 million for a new seminary, they could surely cough up more for a victim settlement, argued Cross.
“The very future of their church is at stake here,” he said. “I’m sure they would donate more for that than they did for a seminary, which represents only one very specific element of the ministry.”
A survey conducted by the Washington, D.C.,-based Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) asked parishioners in
Only 11 percent said they would give more, while 26 percent said they would give less and 63 percent said it would have no bearing.
(Studies show that only 20 percent of any given diocese’s parishioners donate to their parishes.)
Frank Butler, the director of FADICA, pointed to
“What we saw there was a good faith effort on part of the church to communicate with parishioners and the parishioners in turn responded,” said
Call it purgatory
In May, Bankruptcy Judge Williams rejected the $45.7 million-settlement offer, ruling that the amount provided compensation only for the original 75 victims and not the 55 who came forward after the bankruptcy was filed. Nor did it include a settlement plan for the victims who’ve yet to come forward, represented on paper by the initially appointed victims committee.
The Association of Parishes rejoiced at the opinion.
For its part, the diocese maintained that it was committed to the offer and would include it in the next submitted plan for reorganization. But then in June, in yet another profound turn of events, U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush reversed the earlier ruling that the diocese owns parish property, setting up a possible appeal that could eventually wend its way to the Supreme Court. Both sides were urged to enter into final mediation in a last ditch effort to save the bankruptcy.
Again, the association rejoiced.
Victim attorney Kosnoff met face-to-face with Skylstad.
“I said, ‘Bishop, we have been very aggressive, very critical of your leadership, and to the extent I was over the top, I apologize,’ ” Kosnoff recalls saying. “I do think you had moments to listen to your heart rather than your lawyers and all this could’ve been avoided. Victims are fed up and in pain and just want this to end. Do we still have a deal?”
“I’m sorry, but this is political,” Kosnoff said the bishop answered.
“We don’t have a deal, then?”
“The bishop stabbed us in the back,” said Kosnoff. “We negotiated in good faith but he refused to crack the whip and reign in the renegade priests of the Association of Parishes and now we are where we are: The fight continues. I can’t go back to my clients and say, ‘He double-crossed us and now you have to accept less.”
Kosnoff countered with a $60 million settlement plan -- for all victims, not just the original 75 -- with 30 million coming from money the diocese has raised through asset sales, insurance providers, and donations from Catholic Charities and
“We’re not asking for anything that can’t be done,” said Kosnoff.
If the diocese does not accept the offer, Kosnoff said the victims will consider suing individual parishes -- a route opened up by the courts, reversal of the parish property issue -- or consider pulling out of the bankruptcy mediation and restart trials.
“This whole notion of parishes being sacrosanct is nonsense,” he said. “We’ll go back to court and start pulling $10 million settlements, and when we’re done they’re won’t be one stick of parish property left.”
Meanwhile, the legal bills continue to pile up.
“The legal fees total over $10 million already,” said Ford Elsaesser, who represents the Association of Parishes pro bono. “That’s $10 million that will not be spent on homeless shelters, low-income housing -- it will not be spent on missionaries in
“We live in a very imperfect world,” said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, author of Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the Church. “The people who say make them pay for the cover-up need to realize who is paying. Believe me, no archbishop is eating less or living in any less luxury because of these suits.”
The diocese recently sold its downtown chancery building -- an ornate, white three-story building that houses the offices of the bishop and his staff -- to real estate developers, Centennial Properties, for $2.05 million. Centennial Properties is owned by the family that owns The Spokesman-Review, the local newspaper that has been hammering away at the diocese’s handling of the scandal.
Catholic Charities is publicly distancing itself from the diocese and fretting over contributions. Catholic cemeteries reluctantly contributed $2 million to the settlement pot.
The Morning Star Boys Ranch, a
The Boys Ranch is fighting its own legal battle as eight former residents have alleged they were victims of physical and sexual abuse there. Two boys claim to have been molested by the longtime director of the ranch, Fr. Joseph Weitensteiner, a local icon whom many call “The Father Flanagan of
On a recent trip to the ranch, a sprawling site of 224 acres in the foothills of the Spokane Mountains, Weitensteiner, admitted to being a strict disciplinarian but denied ever knowing of or engaging in abuse.
“I cried when I heard those allegations,” he said. “It’s been terrible for me. In a way, just by being accused, everything you stand for goes down the drain because some people will probably believe it and that is terrible.”
Many of the ranch’s alumni have rallied in support of Weitensteiner, who voluntarily took -- and reportedly passed -- a polygraph test when the allegations arose. His lawyer refused to supply the test results, since trials are pending.
“My comment to the attorneys is, ‘We’re going to court,’ ” said Weitensteiner. “We’re not going to pay anybody money who is lying. I will stand by that to my death.”
The ranch has already spent about $65,000 on its own legal battles, and a spokesman for the ranch said legal fees for the coming year could reach $500,000. To raise money for the bankruptcy, the diocese is selling a neighboring property, which through crop production raises about $35,000 annually for the Boys Ranch. The diocese is asking the ranch, which has experienced a decline in contributions since the allegations arose, to contribute $300,000 to the bankruptcy settlement pot.
Dan Kuhlmann, the new director of the ranch, fears the lawsuits and bankruptcy could result in the closure of Morning Star, one of the last boys’ homes in the region.
“I understand the need for compensation to victims,” said Kuhlmann, a tall man, with dark, thoughtful eyes. “But these are hurting kids. I might have to throw them back out on the street. Would people be comfortable with that?”
Kuhlmann collected his thoughts, and tried to put the bankruptcy in some sort of spiritual context.
“I’m a person of faith,” he said. “My feeling is that the spirit moves us in many directions for many different reasons and oftentimes we don’t know the reason. He offers challenges for us to better ourselves. And maybe that’s what this all is, some kind of purgatory.”
“I pray daily, and I ask myself, ‘How is this going to strengthen my relationship with my God? How is this going to strengthen our relationship as a community with our God?’ I’m sure it will somehow. I just don’t have the insight into how. No one does, I guess.”
“Maybe this is an opportunity to look at our vision as a diocese to say, ‘This is an opportunity, not a ransom.’ ”
“What do we want? What needs should we advance? Who do we want the church to serve? For instance, I’m not sure we’re meeting the needs of young people.”
“How do we accomplish the ministry of Jesus Christ? Are we dissatisfied with our present results? Then how can we do it better? It’s not about money; it’s about the mission.”
And, finally, victims continue to live in suspension.
“In some ways, it was easier for me to keep it all secret than to come forward,” said victim Randy Coston. “My only financial concern was that Cheryl Corrigan and her three kids be provided for. And there are many days I think of Tim and I know that for me this was all about creating a safer environment for our kids. And as all this drags on and on, I worry that we’ve all lost sight of that somehow.”
Michael Newall is a freelance writer living in
National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2006