Saturday, August 27, 2005

Musings on the Spokane Diocese Bankruptcy ruling

The LA Time reports that a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that the Spokane Diocese must include all parish properties and schools as part of their assets in paying their liabilities to vicimts of clerical sexual abuse.

A number of related topics begin to swim in my mind as I contemplate this ruling. Among them:

-The impact this could have on the Diocese of Spokane's ability to minister to the community it serves
-the actual liability of the bishops in this tragedy
-the unspoken yet real impact of homosexuality in the priesthood and its contribution to this tragedy
-the stance and needs of the victims, and the apparent continuum between those that are aggrieved and wish for justice, and those that are past aggrieved and are out for vengeance, hoping to see the ultimate demise of the Church
-the parallels (and lack thereof) between this tragedy and the greedy confiscation of church houses and properties in the Reformation
-some personal reflections, as I actually work (but do not live) within the physical boundaries of the Spokane Diocese
-the issue of LAWYERS, and their retainers, and where the money is actually going
-and why this is being tested in a remote diocese like Spokane, when everyone knows that the BIG dollars are to be found in major metropolitan sees, such as Los Angeles, New York and Boston.

That's a big budget of issues to review, so my intent and hope is to address these issues over a series of postings in the future.

In casting about, it might be best to begin with the actual liability of the bishops in this case. A Google search on "bishop's liability" is not very illuminating. I recommend FirstThings for a generally balanced view on this. FirstThings publisher Fr. RJ Neuhaus has been very critical of the bishops' generally poor fidelity in insuring the safety of the victims, and in their reprehensible practice of simply moving pedophile priests from one parish to another.

In general, it cannot be denied that numerous bishops across the nation were abrogating their duties when they damped discussion/revelation of pedophile priests, and were verging on the criminal -in terms of aiding and abetting- when they would move suspect priests from parish to parish, as opposed to taking more active stances, which could range from the minimum of removing the priest from any ministry that provided them access to children, to suspending them a divinis until a proper investigation was made. Way too many bishops simply swept the significant problem under the rug, and now they are being forced to pay the piper.

My belief is that dioceses need to make financial, therapeutic and spiritual restitution to the victims. In that, organizations such as SNAP and myself are in agreement. In reality, it is my impression that this is also the stance of the Bishop's office in Spokane. The difficulty there lies in exactly what the office should pay. SNAP et al believe that the bishops should pay from all material wealth within the Church. The bishops stance (as of now) is that this is impossible; as he does not actually own the churches and schools under his jurisdiction.

The Catholic Church (at least in the Western US) has their dioceses set up so that the Bishop is head of the diocese as corporation sole. As near as I can figure, that means that the bishop has full responsibility for the spiritual, canonical and financial health of the parishes within his purview. (This does NOT mean that he has this authority over all Catholic churches within his physical realm. For example, there is a Byzantine Rite of the Mass within the Church [as opposed to the more commonly known Roman Rite]. Spokane has one of these parishes within the Diocese, St. Cyril and Methodius. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Spokane has no authority over this parish; that authority is vested in the Byzantine Eparch of Van Nuys [based in Phoenix]. St. Cyril and Methodius is not subject to the civil lawsuits that Spokane is facing).

SNAP, and others, are making the seemingly logical claim that these assets are subject to the Diocese in computing its general worth in then compensating the vicimts of clerical sexual abuse.

The Bishop, on the other hand, has argued (so far unsuccessfully) that he is only in control of direct diocesan properties, such as Diocesan offices. Canon law apparently supports this reading, though it would seem to fly in the face of our traditional interpretations of US law.

In one sense, the Bishop is correct: At the end of the day, it is the parish pastor and board of trustees, as well as the parishioners themselves, that actually run and maintain individual fiduciary responsibility of the parishes. If the parish gets into a financial jam, the Diocese is not going to bail it out. If the Parish wishes to build a new Religious Education Center, the Diocese is not going to provide the proceeds for construction; the parishioners are going to have to pony up. And in this case, if in the end the parishes are in fact liquidated for the abuse settlements, it is the individual parishioners that are going to have to pony up to keep the parish.

And in that fact, forcing the individual parishioners to pay out of their own pockets to cover the bishop's failure to shepherd properly, I see a violation of justice. How is it that parishioners today, who had NO KNOWLEDGE that previous bishops were shielding pedophile priests, are in the end being told they have pay the victims of the bishop's infidelity? And the Bishop of Spokane was looking to shield his parishioners from this very injustice.

Now, one can turn around and suggest that since we are collectively the Body of Christ, we are ALL liable for the actions of renegade priests and delinquent bishops. That is another topic for another day.

One thing that concerns me is the ability of dioceses to continue their ministries in education, care for the ill and suffering if their properties are liquidated. The following quote from the Executive Director of SNAP, David Clohessy, suggests there is nothing to fear:
"It's just not true (that the schools and parishes do not belong to the bishop). Dioceses across the country can do justice, and offer closure and healing, without any curtailing of church functions or activities."

I fail to see where Clohessy can issue this optimisitic assessment. If liquidation is pursued, many diocesan parish organizations are going to close for good, especially given the plaintiffs' desire to extract as much money from the dioceses as possible, even at the risk of closing Church services.

I guess I would find Clohessy a bit more believable if the plaintiffs now assessed the diocese's holdings at resale value as opposed to replacement value. Churches that are placed on the real estate market nowadays don't come close to selling for replacement value; they cost a ton to HVAC, maintain, and their usable space is not in the configuration demanded by most business and industry.

If SNAP and the plaintiffs ask the Diocese for monies commensurate with the resale value of properties, then we know they are really pursuing justice. If they assess at replacement value, then we know this is not about justice, but vengeance, with a hope of destroying the Church.


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