Bankrupt by abuse

July 12, 2004

IF THE SEXUAL abuse allegations raised by former altar boy James Devereaux are true, the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., will have to account for its negligence in allowing a now dead pedophile priest to molest children time and again. The diocese's unprecedented decision last week to file for bankruptcy halted Mr. Devereaux's civil trial on his claims as it was set to start.

Mr. Devereaux may eventually get his day in court, but now a federal bankruptcy judge will determine how far the Portland Archdiocese must go to settle its debts, including sexual abuse claims. Sell church properties? Liquidate investments? Close social programs? Lay off diocesan workers?

All are potentially devastating to the financial health of the Catholic Church in America.

Since the clergy abuse scandal broke open in Boston two years ago, the focus has shifted from individual priest as abuser to church leader as enabler. Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny says the diocese's insurers -- which have helped pay $53 million to abuse victims so far -- are now refusing to settle claims in which church leaders knew of the abuse.

Lawyers for Mr. Devereaux argue that the Portland diocese should be forced to sell off assets like any other "corporation that has committed wrongs."

The church must be held accountable for the actions of its priests, especially if its leaders knew of the abusive behavior and did little or nothing to stop it.

But a diocese is not a corporation like tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds or asbestos manufacturer Johns-Manville. In some dioceses, parishes are individual corporations, owning their churches and schools. The Boston Archdiocese was forced to sell off the cardinal's mansion to help settle its mounting claims in the abuse scandal. It could do without a mansion, but if parish churches, homeless shelters or education programs are at risk, victims will get their just rewards but at the expense of Catholics and other recipients of the church's services.

If other dioceses follow Portland into bankruptcy court, the nation's bishops would be wise to consider a proposal by Minneapolis lawyer Patrick J. Schiltz to establish an independently administered claims fund to address victims' complaints in lieu of litigation. Such a fund might help limit the financial damages that Catholics across the country will ultimately bear, while properly compensating victims for their pain.

Mr. Devereaux says he doesn't care about the money a jury might award him; he wants the church to own up to its role in the abuse cases. More bishops should take responsibility for the damage done by their predecessors and make public their roles in the abuse scandal. For many of the victims of clergy abuse, it's never been about the money.

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