Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Katrina and Spokane

Hugh Hewitt suggests that we "adopt a parish" that has been affected by Katrina. I appreciate the sentiment. As a Catholic, however, I am only going to contribute to national religious charities. Why? Because of the decision recently reached by the judge supervising the Diocese of Spokane's bankruptcy case (Spokane declared bankruptcy because the diocese can't pay all the legal claims arising out of the priest abuse scandal.) Here's a news summary of the holding:

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams of Spokane ruled Aug. 26 that civil property laws prevail in a bankruptcy proceeding despite any internal church laws that might bar a bishop from full control over parish assets. Diocesan lawyers had argued that in church law parish assets belong to the parish itself, not to its pastor or to the bishop. They said that, while the diocesan bishop was nominally the owner in civil law, even in civil law he only held those properties in trust for the parishes themselves. ...

Last December the Spokane Diocese filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Act, citing $11.1 million in assets and $83.1 million in liabilities, mostly from people seeking recompense for childhood sexual abuse by priests. It did not include parishes, parish schools or cemeteries in its list of assets.

Victims' lawyers claimed that the bishop had more than $80 million in assets under his control if he included the diocese's 82 parishes, 16 diocesan and parochial schools, and various cemeteries and other properties that he claimed he held only in trust. {Ed: What exactly do the lawyers want to with the [expletive deleted] cemeteries? Dig up the bodies and sell the land?}

And here's the real kicker:

Stockton attorney Larry Drivon, who represents hundreds of Californians suing the Catholic Church over childhood sexual abuse, said the Spokane ruling sends a warning to other Catholic dioceses considering bankruptcy to avoid payment of multimillion-dollar jury verdicts in sex-abuse cases. "They are not going to get anywhere in bankruptcy," he said. "This is exactly what we've been saying since Day One, that all of the Catholic assets within the diocese are available to pay these plaintiffs," Drivon said.

Drivon said the ruling also meant that money held in restricted funds within dioceses for special projects, such as construction of a cathedral, can be used to pay judgments in sex-abuse cases, contradicting what some church officials have told donors. "They have told their parishioners, 'Don't worry about the funds that you gave us for the cathedral, because these funds are separate and cannot be used for lawsuits.' Well, they can," Drivon said.

In other words, giving money to a specific parish these days for a specific purpose like Katrina relief is no longer safe from the claims of sex abuse litigants. I firmly believe that the Church needs to compensate the victims of priestly sex abuse, but I also don't want money I give to hurricane relief being diverted to other purposes.


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