Saturday, December 31, 2005

Judge rules church property subject to bankruptcy settlement

Associated Press
Dec 30, 2005 - 10:08:02 pm PST

PORTLAND -- A bankruptcy judge ruled Friday that the Archdiocese of Portland, not its parishes, owns church assets, dealing a major blow to its efforts to protect church property from lawsuits filed by alleged victims of priest sex abuse.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris, in a pair of opinions, ruled that church property and real estate are under the control of the archdiocese, not its individual parishes, as attorneys for the archdiocese had argued.

In a related ruling, Perris approved questions that attorneys for the victims plan to ask Archbishop William Levada on Jan. 6 when he becomes the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify in a deposition.

The archdiocese became the first in the nation to declare bankruptcy when it filed for protection from creditors in July 2004, just before the scheduled start of jury trials for victims seeking more than $155 million in damages.

Since then, the archdiocese has been trying to protect church buildings and real estate from being included in settlements with alleged victims, arguing the property is owned by the 124 individual parishes and a handful of schools -- and not the archdiocese.

Perris, however, ruled it was clear the archdiocese held title to all property and controlled church assets she noted were worth an estimated $98 million, including real estate.

The archdiocese, Perris wrote, has the "authority to convey real property without limitation."

Attorneys for the victims praised the ruling, saying it should allow the bankruptcy case to move forward.

"It's a clear victory," said Erin Olson, who represents some of the victims.

Attorneys for the archdiocese said they were considering an appeal.

"We believe strongly the decision is not supported by the facts of the law and that it infringes on the archdiocese's and parishioners' rights to the free exercise of religion," said Howard Levine, a lawyer for the archdiocese.

Perris rejected arguments that accepting the jurisdiction of a federal court might violate First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion by forcing the church to ignore canon law on ownership.

"There is no First Amendment impediment to this court's jurisdiction," Perris wrote.

Perris ruled the case is about property -- not religion.

"Who owns the property is, quite simply, not a theological or doctrinal matter," Perris wrote. "The religious organization's internal law is not relevant to the dispute."

In her separate ruling on the deposition scheduled Jan. 6 in San Francisco, Perris ruled that attorneys for alleged victims can ask how much Levada knew about sex abuse claims when he was archbishop in Portland from 1986 to 1995.

Perris said the attorneys can ask Levada about "policies, practices and procedures regarding the manner of responding to allegations of, or to any information suggesting, that a member of the clergy has or may have engaged in sexual misconduct."

Pope Benedict XVI last May made Levada the highest-ranking American in the Vatican by naming him to take over the pontiff's old job as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, responsible for protecting church teachings and for reviewing all sex abuse claims against clergy.

Levada also served as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1985, when he was assigned to review a report warning U.S. bishops about the extent of clergy sex abuse. In 2002, he was appointed to an eight-member commission of U.S. bishops and Vatican representatives who finalized rules for dealing with abuse.

Vatican lawyers had tried to limit the scope of the questions planned at the deposition.

But the judge "has basically allowed us to ask everything we wanted to," said Olson, who will question Levada with Kelly Clark, another Portland lawyer who represents alleged abuse victims.

The deposition also can include questions about legal advice Levada received from Robert McMenamin, former legal counsel to the archdiocese.

Attorneys for alleged victims have said they believe McMenamin advised Levada to be more aggressive about dealing with abuse claims during his tenure in Portland.

The ruling on the property issue, meanwhile, could force the archdiocese to sell off church properties to pay settlements or court awards to sex abuse victims. However, Perris left open the question of whether the sale of individual church properties could pose an unfair burden on the practice of religion under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993.

Her ruling supports an earlier decision in the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Spokane in Washington state, which sought protection from creditors shortly after the Archdiocese of Portland.

In the Washington case, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams said Spokane Bishop William Skylstad agreed to abide by federal law when he voluntarily entered the diocese into bankruptcy, and cannot claim that ownership must decided by church law.

West Coast Bankruptcy Ruling Can Have Widespread Implications

John Shuster Writes:

There are a lot of upset Catholics in Oregon this morning.

Their wonderful archbishop Vlasny has gambled away their future. His previous sex abuse handling experience in the diocese of Winona counted for nothing. The priests in good standing of the Archdiocese of Portland also helped to cover up sex crimes against children for decades because they did not act to support victim survivors and their families when they could have done so definitively. Well, those violated children grew up to be adults and now they're back in force, with lots of friends and supporters, and they're achieving the justice and reconstructive compensation they deserve.

The Portland archdiocese voluntarily became a business when it incorporated itself in the State of Oregon. Vlasny and his dream-team lawyers voluntarily chanced a bankruptcy/First Amendment legal scheme to stop public disclosure of all the details of the cover-up and to water down the probable millions in payouts.

Well, Vlasny gambled and he lost. Big time. I believe Catholics would have preferred to deal with the raw truth of the sex abuse atrocity in their own archdiocese rather than be in the current position where they are about to lose their parishes to liquidation.

Judge Perris has made it clear that Canon Law is not the law of the land in the USA. Vlasny has learned that being a big rich religious organization with churches and hospitals and universities and credit unions and billions in diversified investments is not a license for the Roman Catholic clergy to enjoy sex crimes against children then act like it is no big thing to handle when the truth comes out. All the good works of the Roman Catholic church throughout all of history do not minimize or justify the violation of even one innocent child. It doesn't work that way in the eyes of God. We married priests won't let this atrocity slide into the past. We'll stand with the survivors and their families until the last survivor dismisses us from duty.

This morning, small parish communities in Tillamook, Seaside, Cottage Grove, Corvallis, Sandy, and scores of others are all wondering if they'll have a church to go to in the near future. Will St. Anthony's in Waldport become the new Assembly of God church? Will Catholics have to drive by their old churches every day and be reminded of what is no longer theirs, even though they built them and sustained them for generations? All they will have is their memories of the good times and a deep and depressing feeling of loss - not unlike most survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

The Vatican, with its district manager bishops, had the international spotlight opportunity to do the right things for survivors in 2003, but they continued the cover-up as best they could with expensive public relations firms, abdicated their moral authority, and instructed their local bishop managers to bring in the hardball lawyers and go the legal route. The secret-laden clergy of Portland has finally lost the big wager and now the little people like those at St. Rose of Lima in Monroe, Oregon will have to pay with their spiritual lives. Joseph Ratzinger and his Vatican machine approved of all of this, but he doesn't have to worry. He not only has diplomatic immunity, he's sitting on THE mountain of Roman Catholic money, replete with international art work, safe in his own little country.

The Vatican and its hierarchy set things up from the beginning so that they own and control everything in every arch/diocese - legally. Now they know that in America the law goes both ways. They, their sexual jolly roger bishops and clergy have poisoned it all for the little people who had no choice but to trust them with the future of their parishes. This morning, for so many Oregon Catholics, a big part of the magic is gone. Reality has arrived in an undeniable and unavoidable manner for Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Catholic. And there's little they can do at this late point in the legal process. Instead of following the church's public relations program of blaming survivors for their courage and integrity, perhaps they will start questioning their own church leadership's true motives for gambling away their religious past and future. Perhaps Catholics in other arch/dioceses around the world can learn a lesson here and act before it is too late for them.

I believe our little married priest Home Masses will become a bit more popular in the days ahead. Disillusioned Catholics will be able to enjoy the pure Roman Catholic liturgy that was closest to the original unincorporated church gathered around the memory of Jesus. They will be able to rely on a married priesthood of integrity they can trust with their children and vulnerable adults. We're not about big money and big corruption. We're about local small parish community and living the love and values of the carpenter of Nazareth who always did the right thing no matter what. The religious leaders of his time had Jesus killed, but God brought him back from death. That is the source of our hope and one of many reasons for our perseverance in service to the families of our Roman Catholic community world-wide.



Friday, December 23, 2005

Irish Bishop Speaks out on a Married Priesthood

From the Irish Examiner

By Caroline O’Doherty and Michael Brennan
THE Catholic Church was staying silent last night on comments from one of its bishops that priests should be allowed to marry.

Bishop of Killaloe (beside Shannon Airport) Willie Walsh voiced his opinion which is in direct conflict with the Vatican in a newspaper interview in which he said celibacy was meaningless if it had a negative impact on priests and the church they served.

"I have known some very fine priests who have left the priesthood because they found the challenge of celibacy not life-giving for them. Men like that are a great loss to the ministerial priesthood," he told the Sunday Tribune.

"Unless in some way celibacy is a generous gift to others and to God, it is meaningless. If we see celibacy simply as abstaining from sexual intimacy, then it is negative, not life-giving."
Bishop Walsh said for some priests, celibacy was a gift that allowed them to give more generously to their vocation but others found the loneliness and isolation too much to bear.

He said the priesthood should be open to both married and celibate priests and urged a full debate within the Church on what he described as a "very serious question".

It is not clear if he will face sanction from the hierarchy in Ireland or Rome.

Staff of the Catholic Communications Office did not return calls yesterday and there has been no public response.

Speaking from his residence in Ennis, Co Clare last night, Bishop Walsh would not say whether he had been contacted by any member of the hierarchy or had received any official reaction.

He confirmed that his views were accurately reflected in the interview although he was concerned at the headline, which he felt suggested he believed all priests should marry.

Bishop Walsh is regarded as one of the more liberal clerics in Ireland and his views have often stirred controversy, though he has not previously challenged Church teachings directly.

Galway-based Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery, who has also been outspoken on the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, backed Bishop Walsh's decision to speak out.

He said the bishop would not fear sanction from his superiors as he had never displayed any interest in the careerism that had forced other clerics to stay silent.

"One of the great strengths of Bishop Walsh is the fact that he has never sought power in the church," Fr Flannery said.

"He has that sense of closeness with his people. He's very much in touch with them because he listens to them and then he has the courage to be the spokesperson to talk out without fear or favour."

© Irish Examiner, 2005, Thomas Crosbie Media, TCH