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Bankruptcy Talk Stirs Boston Catholics

Dec 5, 2002 | CNN

A newspaper report that the Boston Catholic Archdiocese is considering filing bankruptcy rather than face years of costly legal battles over hundreds of claims that priests sexually abused children has sparked furor among parishioners and litigants.

"I think it's a cowardly act, and that they ought to face the music, do the right thing," said one parishioner.

Some legal analysts suggested the report might reflect a legal tactic on the part of the archdiocese designed to pressure plaintiffs into agreeing to lower settlements.

The report came on the eve of the expected filing Tuesday of thousands of pages of documents that will describe in graphic detail the sexual offenses that dozens of Boston-area priests are accused of, said Eric MacLeish, an attorney representing dozens of plaintiffs.

MacLeish said the documents would provide extensive evidence that church authorities moved accused priests from parish to parish, where they preyed on children.

MacLeish said he would ask to depose Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, based on these new documents in the coming weeks.

Law would not be required to give depositions in such cases if the archdiocese were to declare bankruptcy.

A church spokeswoman played down the possibility but did not deny such a move could occur. "The reports that were in the media today are speculative and premature, to say the least," said Donna Morrissey.

Lawyers for the church have been in mediation with 40 lawyers representing some 450 alleged sexual abuse victims.

Bankruptcy would end those efforts and halt consideration of the case for at least several months.

If it filed bankruptcy, the Boston Archdiocese would gain a simpler, more-defined process: a cutoff for the filing of claims would be imposed, and the creditors would be assembled into a single class, said CNN legal analyst Kendall Coffey.

It would also mean that Cardinal Law would not be required to give further pre-trial depositions or release sensitive files and documents.

"On the other hand, it doesn't eliminate the ability of people to proceed against individuals such as Cardinal Law," Coffey said.

'Putting a hand grenade on table'
Removing control over the church's destiny from the Vatican and placing it in the hands of a U.S. bankruptcy judge would be an "unprecedented" move that could have negative consequences for the church, Coffey said.

A plaintiffs' attorney told CNN there was little possibility the archdiocese would indeed seek bankruptcy protection, since doing so would require it to lay bare its finances.

"It's a risky thing for everyone," Coffey said. "It's like sitting at a negotiating table and putting a hand grenade out on the table, not pulling the pin, but telling everybody, 'If we can't make a deal on something I like, we may have some kind of explosion here that's mutually destructive for everyone.'

"I think, at this point, it ought to be seen as part negotiating strategy and part trial balloon."

A Boston Globe study estimated the minimal value of properties owned by the archdiocese at $1.3 billion, more than 10 times the predicted cost of the settlements.

One alleged victim expressed concern that a bankruptcy claim could keep him and other plaintiffs from publicizing their claims in court.

"It runs the risk of negating the suffering that people have gone through for 30 years," said Bill Gately, a member of the Survivors' Network. "It's like, 'Here's your check get out of here.'"

Gately said his suit is less about money than about casting a light on the ills of the church.

But Robert Sherman, a lawyer representing several plaintiffs, said a bankruptcy claim would result in delays, but would not silence the victims.

"We believe our victims would get the same amount of attention, their cases will be heard, exactly what they went through with the priest that abused them will come to light," he said.

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