Catholics Hope Bankruptcy Plan Enables Churches to Move Ahead

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), May 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Catholics Hope Bankruptcy Plan Enables Churches to Move Ahead


Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Catholics exited from worship services over the weekend with a new, six-page church report detailing the Archdiocese of Portland's accounting of its approved bankruptcy plan - amid hopes that closure on a painful clergy sex scandal is approaching.

"There's a sense of relief that it's ending - but also a hopefulness that it's ending well," said Julie Sanchez, a member of St. Mary Catholic Church in downtown Eugene.

Sanchez was among the thousands of Catholics across Western Oregon presented copies of the special-edition Catholic Sentinel newspaper at weekend Masses. Sanchez said she saw many members of St. Mary poring over the report after church on Sunday.

Archbishop John Vlazny promised in mid-April to present the report to parishes, after the approval of a complex bankruptcy reorganization plan. In a column in the special report, Vlazny called the bankruptcy process "painful and sobering."

"We've been brought to our knees, probably the best place to be under the circumstances," he said.

The church reports that it will pay around $50 million to about 160 claimants - or about one-tenth the combined amounts sought in pre-bankruptcy suits. The average settlement, about $300,000, is comparable to claims paid in other dioceses, according to the report.

Most of the claims have been on hold since 2004, when the archdiocese became the first in the nation to declare bankruptcy on the eve of trials in multimillion-dollar lawsuits over clergy sexual abuse.

The approved bankruptcy plan allows the church to operate normally and without having to sell schools or properties of its 124 parishes.

The special report outlines many financial details tied to the bankruptcy case - including $16.4 million in legal fees. It also touches on harsh realities, listing, for example, the names of 13 priests and the number of sex abuse claims - ranging from 54 to five - made against each.

The Sentinel report - with the words "Cases settled, healing begins" adorning the nameplate - also offers apologies to the victims, warns of continuing financial challenges ahead and characterizes the bankruptcy as the wisest option available to the church.

In defending against the allegations, the archdiocese's lawyers had to navigate "a thicket" of Oregon law and culture, the report said. "Few if any other states have such a combination of statutes and anti-establishment opinion making it so hard for employers with a worker accused of sexual misconduct."

For example, Oregon's liberal statute of limitations made it easier for allegations involving long-ago incidents to go forward, the report said. Also, because Oregon is a relatively unchurched state, "it's more likely a larger section of the public is predisposed to believe allegations of clergy sex abuse," the report said.

The report also praises the gag order that mediation Judges Michael Hogan and Lyle Velure imposed during the bankruptcy proceeding, saying it kept parties focused on the task at hand and not on "public cat-and-mouse games. …

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