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Theological Notebook: Justice v. Profiteering

I might get some flak for this one. Let me try to disarm some accusations of insensitivity.

Criminal sexual abuse is a fact of life that we've only recently begun to admit to ourselves as a society. Far and away the most visible treatment of the subject has been all of the news stories about clergy sexual abuse. Numerically, that's just the tip of the iceberg, but its a particularly scandalous story when the criminals are supposed to be people who've taken ethical stances or vows that are diametrically opposed to such horrific abuse of other human beings. We really haven't begun to deal with the amount of the same kind of abuse that occurs in the schools and certainly not the homes of America. But those criminals aren't so clearly as part of a "group" as the criminals among the clergy were, so they're more difficult to deal with as a group.

I've spent well over a decade walking with a friend down the road of dealing with that kind of victimhood. We're both Catholics, both believers, both educated in our field. Our faith was ours: just because the criminal in this story was a member of our own clergy didn't mean that we could lose that faith--it is something other than a criminal who was a representative of it. We are representatives of it, too. So, listening and being with my friend, I had lots to learn about this particular horror. I had a start already, in that 1/4 of my girlfriends had--just like the statistics predict--been victims of rape, and so I'd already learned something about walking with someone through the aftermath of that kind of reality. But this had a distinct character in being a betrayal that, for a public vision, reflected on our Church.

I now see that a major court decision has been made that radically holds me and every other Catholic liable for sexual abuse claims. In fact, it can even hold dead Catholics responsible. I believe that victims of crimes are justly owed a legal restitution from those who committed crimes against them. I also think that there are legitimate cases to be made against administrative structures of the Church that allowed abuse to be perpetuated, even in such situations as being under the advice of the latest (but now outdated and rejected) psychological professionals that such perpetrators were now "cured."

Nevertheless, I do have to wonder when I see pushes of kind here that we're beginning to deal with legal professionals that are simply seeing the possibilities for incredible payoffs. It seems to me that there are definite limits to which a group of people, almost all of whom had never heard of either criminal or victim, can be held liable for crimes committed by a member of that group. That the lawyers arguing for the plaintiff can consider all the parishes of a diocese ripe for the plucking, including the sick, elderly and homeless supported by the parish, the schoolchildren, the teachers and the schools in the parish, and the very cemeteries as "assets" to be liquidated in favour of a victim is moving beyond the bounds of justice. The victim is owed justice, yes, by the guilty. But just how guilty is everyone else for being Catholic?
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams of Spokane ruled Aug. 26 that civil property laws prevail in a bankruptcy proceeding despite any internal church laws that might bar a bishop from full control over parish assets. Diocesan lawyers had argued that in church law parish assets belong to the parish itself, not to its pastor or to the bishop. They said that, while the diocesan bishop was nominally the owner in civil law, even in civil law he only held those properties in trust for the parishes themselves. [...]

Last December the Spokane Diocese filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Act, citing $11.1 million in assets and $83.1 million in liabilities, mostly from people seeking recompense for childhood sexual abuse by priests. It did not include parishes, parish schools or cemeteries in its list of assets.

Victims' lawyers claimed that the bishop had more than $80 million in assets under his control if he included the diocese's 82 parishes, 16 diocesan and parochial schools, and various cemeteries and other properties that he claimed he held only in trust.
For the full article, click here.

Diocese to appeal bankruptcy court decision that parishes are assets

By Catholic News Service

SPOKANE, Wash. (CNS) -- Citing the "national consequences," Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane said he will appeal a federal bankruptcy court's ruling that parish properties must be included in the Spokane diocesan assets used to settle millions of dollars in clergy sex abuse claims.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams of Spokane ruled Aug. 26 that civil property laws prevail in a bankruptcy proceeding despite any internal church laws that might bar a bishop from full control over parish assets. Diocesan lawyers had argued that in church law parish assets belong to the parish itself, not to its pastor or to the bishop. They said that, while the diocesan bishop was nominally the owner in civil law, even in civil law he only held those properties in trust for the parishes themselves.

"It is not a violation of the First Amendment," Williams wrote, "to apply federal bankruptcy law to identify and define property of the bankruptcy estate even though the Chapter 11 debtor is a religious organization."

Her ruling, if upheld, would vastly increase the diocesan assets subject to the abuse claims and would up the ante nationwide for any other diocese considering that approach to resolving sexual abuse claims against its clergy.

Last December the Spokane Diocese filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Act, citing $11.1 million in assets and $83.1 million in liabilities, mostly from people seeking recompense for childhood sexual abuse by priests. It did not include parishes, parish schools or cemeteries in its list of assets.

Victims' lawyers claimed that the bishop had more than $80 million in assets under his control if he included the diocese's 82 parishes, 16 diocesan and parochial schools, and various cemeteries and other properties that he claimed he held only in trust.

Spokane was the last of three dioceses that made a Chapter 11 filing last year, but it was the first to receive a court decision on the question of diocesan ownership of parish properties.

The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., filed for Chapter 11 in July 2004, citing some $300 million in claims. At the time of the Spokane decision the bankruptcy court in Portland was still hearing opposing arguments about the status of parishes as separately owned properties or diocesan assets.

The Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., which filed for Chapter 11 in September 2004, earlier this summer reached a reorganization agreement under which it set up a $22.2 million fund to settle all current and future claims against it. A key element in the negotiations in Tucson was an agreement by the parishes to contribute $2 million toward that fund in return for avoiding protracted litigation over the issue of who owned the parishes.

Bishop Skylstad, who was traveling in Eastern Europe when the ruling was announced, said in a statement that the diocese would "appeal this decision because we have a responsibility not only to victims but to the generations of parishioners ... who have given so generously of themselves" to build up the church in eastern Washington.

In his statement, read to reporters by diocesan vicar general Father Steve Dublinski, the bishop said, "The court's decision has national consequences. Its impact will be felt not just by Catholic communities but by many other church communities of any denomination, of any faith expression."

He said that during the legal arguments about parish ownership two months earlier "Judge Williams herself stated that she fully expected her decision to be appealed no matter which way she ruled."
Tags: ecclesiology, legal, political, theological notebook
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