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Dioceses On Their Own, Financially

Dec 12, 2002 | AP

Sex abuse settlements are posing an enormous financial burden for the Roman Catholic Church, even leading the Boston Archdiocese in the United States to consider the unprecedented step of filing for bankruptcy.

But when it comes time to pay the bills, Vatican officials won't be signing the checks.

Settlement costs this year in Ireland are estimated at $140 million, and in the United States dioceses could wind up paying hundreds of millions of dollars for new claims.

Victim advocates estimate that U.S. dioceses had already spent $1 billion on settlements before this year's crisis.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland entered into about 15 confidentiality agreements with sex-abuse victims over the past 25 years. In those cases, the diocese paid damage settlements that totaled more than $1 million, according to Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Richard Bell, citing diocesan documents obtained during a seven-month investigation of sex abuse in the diocese.

Providing counseling for victims pushed the cost of sex abuse in the diocese higher, but the total amount spent was not documented in the prosecutor's investigative report.

In the Boston case, the Vatican would have to approve a bankruptcy filing, but otherwise the Holy See doesn't bail out dioceses in financial trouble.

It expects each diocese to pay its own way.

What's more, the Vatican has always said that claims of its immense wealth are exaggerated, and that the precious art work and real estate it possesses are held in trust for humanity.

The Vatican "does not have a responsibility, not in a strict sense," for a diocese's finances, said Cardinal Edmund Szoka, who headed the Vatican's budget planning office through much of the 1990s.

Szoka, a former archbishop of Detroit, is now president of the commission that governs the Vatican city state.

While bishops have financial independence, church law requires Vatican approval if the possible sale of assets exceeds a figure set for each country by its bishops conference. The figure for the United States is $3 million.

The Boston Archdiocese's financial commission has given Cardinal Bernard Law permission to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a move that would open up the church's financial records to exceptional scrutiny by a court in Massachusetts.

Law has been at the Vatican this week, presumably discussing the bankruptcy issue and possibly calls for his resignation for failing to remove sexually abusive priests.

The church in the United States is not at all alone in facing huge legal settlements for its mishandling of clerical sex abuse claims.

A $140 million settlement in Ireland will require the church to sell some property there.

Other agreements this year have been reported in New Zealand and Canada, where Catholics have been asked to help raise money to help pay sex abuse victims at a Newfoundland orphanage in a $12 million out-of-court settlement.

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