Diocese Raising Funds to Pay Off Sex Abuse Claims — Its Paper Explains It All

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In Roman Catholic parishes around Spokane, sermons on the joy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are mixed with urgent pleas for money to pay people who were sexually abused by clergy decades ago.

Priests sometimes evoke the parable of the good Samaritan – who stopped to help a man who had been beaten and robbed when others looked the other way – as they wage a unique campaign to raise money to settle the Spokane diocese’s long-running sex abuse scandal.

The May 3 issue of The Inland Register, the diocesan newspaper, contains six lengthy stories over several pages explaining the bankruptcy settlement, including one in Spanish.

“I’ve been telling them the focus here is on the children who were hurt and doing what we can to bring them some sort of compensation, some sort of healing,” said the Rev. Edgar Borchardt, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the college and farm town of Pullman, about 80 miles south of Spokane.

A Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization plan approved last month commits the 95,000-member diocese to pay $48 million – including $10 million from 82 parishes – to settle as many as 177 claims of previous sexual abuse. That $10 million is roughly what the parishioners normally put in the collection plate in a year.

While five dioceses around the country are struggling with similar cases, the Spokane diocese is the only one asking its parishioners to make such significant contributions toward paying the victims.

The diocese – home of Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – is the smallest and poorest of the five dioceses nationwide that sought bankruptcy protection against clergy sex abuse lawsuits.

Others are San Diego; Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Ore.; and Tucson, Ariz. Tucson has emerged from bankruptcy protection, while Portland’s reorganization plan also has been approved.

Skylstad is himself raising an additional $6 million toward the bankruptcy settlement, and Catholic agencies, such as cemeteries, children’s’ homes and charities, are being asked to contribute another $6.5 million.

Over the next few weeks, parish priests will sell the settlement to the people in the pews, said Bob Hailey, a Spokane lawyer who is an executive on a grass-roots capital campaign to help parishes raise their share.

How that pitch is made is up to individual priests in each parish, Hailey said.

Borchardt’s church began its campaign in February, ahead of other parishes. The congregation’s 350 families already have raised – in cash and pledges – about 80 percent of the $250,000 assessment the parish is expected to contribute, he said.

Some parishioners are angry at Skylstad for taking the diocese into bankruptcy, while others balk at paying bankruptcy lawyer fees. Still others question why they should pay for priests who molested children decades ago in other parishes, Borchardt said.

“The good Samaritan was not at all responsible for the problem, but he was the one who took care of the problem,” Borchardt said. “We try to keep the focus on the healing of those who survived the abuse and healing of the people in the pews. This has been fairly traumatic for people in the pews, too.”

The Rev. Mike Savelesky, co-chairman of the Association of Parishes, a group of pastors and laity formed to protect the assets of individual parishes, told his parishioners their church’s future may rest on the success of the campaign.

Savelesky is pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a large parish and one of four Spokane-area parishes being used as collateral to secure loans for the diocese.

It is also the former home of former priest Patrick O’Donnell, who admitted to molesting dozens of young boys. Skylstad shared a parish residence in the early 1970s with O’Donnell.

“No one is punishing us or blaming us for something we did not do, but the love of Christ bids us reach out in compassion and healing love to those who have been abused,” Savelesky wrote his parishioners. “Although money does not heal, in our nation’s legal system, victims of abuse have a right to just compensation.”

Victims groups accused Skylstad, who was himself accused of sexually abusing a woman in the 1960s, of covering up knowledge of O’Donell’s misdeeds. The bishop has vigorously denied the woman’s claim and said he did not remember complaints that O’Donnell was molesting children.

If $47 million of the $48 million is not turned over to a bankruptcy trustee by Dec. 31, parishes will be required to take out loans to make up the shortfall.

“What I’m hoping is, people realize this is not a campaign we can afford to fail,” Hailey said. “We will rely on all parishioners to share a part of the burden.”

Skylstad has sent his own letter in support, but the diocese won’t be directly involved in the fundraising, Hailey said.

The reorganization plans calls for Skylstad and the diocese to raise nearly $18 million in addition to the parishes’ contributions. Insurance settlements will contribute about $20 million.

Paul McNabb has been a member of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in northwest Spokane since 1960. He plans to contribute when the campaign begins this week in his church.

“I see it as a compassionate way of helping out, of justly compensating the victims of abuse and also helping the diocese to continue with its operations,” McNabb said.

Not everyone feels that way.

During the bankruptcy confirmation hearing April 24, Leo Driscoll, a retired Spokane lawyer who attends Sacred Heart Church in South Spokane, opposed confidentiality wording in the settlement he said won’t allow parishioners to audit claims that could be false, or to learn more about priests who may have molested children.

Skylstad last month rejected a call to resign by four prominent Catholics who vowed they would not contribute “one dime” because the settlement was not subject to a vote of parishioners.

The reorganization plan confirmed last month by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams will pay victims from $15,000 to $1.5 million each, depending on the severity of the molestation or rape. A former U.S. attorney will hear claims and decide how much each person receives.

The Spokane diocese, which serves Catholics in 13 Eastern Washington counties, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2004 in the face of a growing number of sex abuse lawsuits.

The sex abuse cases nationwide have cost the Catholic Church about $1.5 billion since 1950, according to figures compiled from studies by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Effects of the settlement already are being felt in Spokane.

Skylstad lives in a rented apartment after his home was sold to raise money. The diocesan business office was as sold last year and is being leased back to the diocese.

It also contains an obituary notice for the Rev. James O’Malley, who died in his native Ireland in April. O’Malley, 87, served in seven Spokane diocese parishes before being accused of molesting children.

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