As bishops meet, legal troubles still loom

Catholic leaders try to regain trust amid continuing lawsuits and financial challenges.

More than two years after approving a plan to remedy the clergy abuse crisis in the US, Roman Catholic bishops face reverberations from the scandal and remain a long way from regaining the trust that the plan aimed to restore.

As the bishops gather Monday in Washington for their annual meeting, three dioceses have taken the unprecedented step of filing for bankruptcy, and others are said to be considering it.

In Boston, where the archdiocese decided against bankruptcy, the church is reeling as parishioners have reacted angrily to a plan to close 83 parishes due to financial crisis. Archbishop Sean O'Malley attributes the crisis not to lawsuit-settlement costs but to a dramatic drop in contributions tied to the scandal.

At the same time, the epicenter of the crisis has moved to California, where the number of civil lawsuits (850) is so large that they've been consolidated into three massive cases. The archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, is expected to give depositions by the end of the year in cases involving his oversight.

And the first, soon-to-be-released national study on the effects of the scandal reportedly confirms that Catholics do not trust that their leaders have done all they could. According to a preview of findings in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 72 percent say the bishops' failure to stop the abuse was a bigger problem than the abuse itself, and 62 percent say church leaders are covering up the facts. "There is still a large doubt in the Catholic population about whether the situation has been repaired," says Dean Hoge, sociologist at Catholic University of America, who helped carry out the study commissioned by the University of Notre Dame.

The study also reportedly finds that 4 out of 5 respondents say the church is still very important to them. "The Catholic laity also want to have more financial visibility and accountability," Mr. Hoge adds.

Indeed for many Catholics, issues of accountability remain uppermost, along with the question of whether bankruptcy is the right path for dioceses under financial threat.

In July, the archdiocese of Portland, Ore., became the first in US history to choose bankruptcy; it had already paid $53 million in settlements and had 60 cases pending. The diocese of Tucson, Ariz., filed in September, having paid out $16 million, with some 24 cases pending. And last week, the Spokane, Wash., diocese took the step, although it had paid out only $272,500.

Some see Chapter 11 as a dangerous precedent that involves the state too directly in church affairs. The prelates say it is necessary, not only for financial reasons to protect their dioceses' future mission, but also to deal fairly and equitably with all victims who might seek redress.

"The first-come, first-served approach that litigation involves just doesn't work, since some who come later may have suffered more, yet not enough resources [remain] to compensate them," says Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. The process in Tucson gives all victims until April 15 to come forward.

Yet all three filings were made on the eve of trials, and critics say other purposes are at work. "What bishops want is to be able to say, 'We've done all we can do,' " says David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Bankruptcy threats are about protecting assets and secrets, and enable bishops to stop depositions and trials and, ultimately, truth-telling and healing."

Concerned that other dioceses are considering the step, James Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a national lay group, says, "This is a moral issue ... that sends a message that money is more important than justice for survivors.

"It's a very secular strategy for a religious institution to take, substituting for moral thinking a mind-set driven by accountants and lawyers," he adds.

Dr. Post suggests there are more imaginative solutions: "What bishops should do is agree to act collectively by pooling resources to create a national framework for settlements."

While bankruptcy is not officially on this week's agenda of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, it's a likely topic for the corridors.

The bishops will address their responsibilities under the clergy abuse plan, which they are committed to reviewing and revising by next June. According to Bishop Kicanas, they'll discuss a review process that would include consulting with diocesan advisory groups.

Some issues of concern to clergy may be revisited, suggests Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly. One is "zero tolerance" - the decision that any priest with one credible allegation against him is to be permanently removed from ministry. Another is due process for priests who deny accusations of abuse.

For those beyond the statute of limitations and thus the reach of law enforcement, there is the question of who does the investigations, says Father Reese. The role of church tribunals - which have largely dealt with annulments - is not clear. As a result, some priests have been removed from ministry but have not had trials.

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