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Church Is Hiding Assets, Sex-Abuse Plaintiffs Say

Men Who Say A Priest Molested Them Claim A Bishop Is Trying To Avoid Paying Damages

Jan 23, 2003 | AP

Sixteen men who claim that they were sexually abused by a priest are trying to stop the Roman Catholic bishop for Eastern Oregon from transferring assets to individual churches, claiming it is a fraudulent ploy to escape paying millions of dollars in damages.

The 16 unnamed men are plaintiffs in a $60.8 million lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baker alleging the late Rev. David Hazen sexually abused them as boys more than 30 years ago while he was a priest at churches in Eastern Oregon. The men seek $3.8 million each.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 3 in Deschutes County Circuit Court on the plaintiffs’ motion to stop the transfer of property, alleging that it would violate Oregon’s Fraudulent Transfers Act by creating a shell corporation with no assets to cover the damages if the lawsuits succeed.

To show the plaintiffs are likely to win, the motion cites a signed confession by Hazen and a written pledge of silence by one of his victims, a 14-year-old seminary student, as evidence the diocese knew of Hazen’s crimes since 1956 and covered them up while assigning him to churches where he found new victims.

“We would expect a decision like this to come from the leaders of Enron and not from the spiritual leaders of the Catholic Church,” said Bill Crane, coordinator of the Oregon chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Crane said the property transfers violated the spirit of the Dallas Charter, the sex-abuse policy written last year by Catholic bishops.

“They vowed reform, pledging to promote healing, justice and outreach to victims and their families rather than continue in scandal,” Crane said. “But again, a bishop is putting his diocese’s finances before its victims.”

Bishop Robert Vasa said he has been working the past three years since taking over the diocese to transfer ownership of properties to the individual churches that use them and that he never intended to avoid any future liabilities.

“The lawsuits have not caused me to do this,” he said. “In fact, they caused me to delay doing this. I did not want to give any appearance of this intention to create a shell corporation.”

Vasa acknowledged that last fall months after the lawsuit was brought he filed papers with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office creating 60 corporations covering the individual churches within the diocese.

He added that he still intends to transfer properties controlled by the diocese to individual churches.

He denied that the transfers would violate the Dallas Charter.

“I don’t think anything in the charter says that dioceses must sell off all their assets and bankrupt their parishes in order to provide enormous payments to victims,” Vasa said.

“The lawsuit element is particularly distressing, because a single lawsuit of $1 million would bankrupt me,” Vasa said.

Though the diocese controls properties valued at $20 million to $30 million, mostly in the form of parish churches and their facilities, the diocese has unrestricted assets of less than $700,000, Vasa said.

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