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Diocese of Spokane offers $45.7 million to settle abuse cases

Scandal - The plan makes Portland the only diocese in bankruptcy lacking a deal

Feb 2, 2006 |

The Diocese of Spokane took a crucial step toward getting out of bankruptcy Wednesday with the announcement of a $45.7 million settlement plan for 75 people who have accused priests of abuse.

The plan sets a course for Spokane to follow the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., which agreed to a $22 million plan to emerge from bankruptcy last summer. It leaves Portland as the only diocese in bankruptcy without an agreement.

Portland became the first diocese in the country to seek bankruptcy protection from priest abuse litigation in July 2004. The archdiocese has proposed a plan that makes available about $40 million, but attorneys for about 100 people involved in the case have called it insufficient. They say they will propose their own plan in the next two weeks.

Spokane, Tucson and Portland are independent Roman Catholic dioceses, and the bankruptcy cases are separate.

"There's no direct effect on Portland at all," said Albert N. Kennedy, lead bankruptcy attorney for the Portland claimants. "It is encouraging that the Diocese of Spokane and at least some of the creditors have been able to come to an agreement. It helps us remain confident that in the next few months we'll be able to reach an agreement with the Archdiocese of Portland and bring this to a conclusion by midyear."

Bud Bunce, a spokesman for the Portland Archdiocese, said Spokane had taken a significant step.

"We know this has been a very difficult process for everyone involved, and our prayers are with them as they bring this process to a close," Bunce said.

In Spokane, people on both sides said they were pleased to have reached a deal.

"The deepest feeling I have is a sense of accomplishment that our children and grandchildren are safer and much more protected," said Mike Shea, an abuse victim and member of the committee that negotiated the deal.

"We want to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Brad Norton, another victim who served on the committee.

The committee has endorsed the plan, though the claimants must give final approval in the next few months.

Bishop William Skylstad, who is head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, publicly apologized to the victims "for the terrible wrongs inflicted on you in the past" and urged Catholics to accept the proposed settlement.

"To those of you who say this settlement will be a burden, I would say that this scandal is a burden we can no longer afford not to resolve," Skylstad said.

James Stang, a Los Angeles lawyer representing Spokane claimants, said the settlement includes the following conditions:

Skylstad will go to each parish where abuse occurred to identify the clergy members who committed the abuse.

Abuse victims will be able to address parishes.

The diocesan newspaper will devote space to victims to write about their experiences.

The diocese will refrain from referring to claimants as "alleged victims."

In addition, the proposal calls for Skylstad to advocate for abolition of statutes of limitations on sex crimes, and to write letters to people who were abused and to their families, Stang said.

The bishop also committed individual parishes to help pay for settlement costs not covered by insurance companies.

The settlement would cover only people who have already filed lawsuits or claims against the diocese. There is no provision for anyone else who might bring a claim in the future. The diocese covers 82 parishes across Eastern Washington.

In Portland, the case could settle soon or drag out for months or even years if the two sides do not reach an agreement.

The next major step is expected to be the announcement of a plan by a committee of people who have accused priests of abuse. It is expected to be filed before a scheduled Feb. 14 hearing on key issues relating to the archdiocese's $40 million plan.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth L. Perris ruled that about 100 cases that had been on hold could go to trial. Perris said a few jury verdicts could help establish a "value" for settling cases.

No dates have been set, but it is expected that a handful of trials could begin later this year.

More than 18 months after the Portland Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy, several issues remain in dispute, including how much the archdiocese has available to pay claims.

The archdiocese contends that it is holding more than $100 million in cash and investments as well as potentially several hundred million in church real estate in trust for its parishes and therefore cannot use it.

In a decision involving 10 test properties, Perris ruled in December that parishes are not separate legal entities. She left open a question about whether selling a certain number of churches might violate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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