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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Priest-child sex -- the child's "misconduct"?

The Monday night recycling ritual always turns up something interesting in the newspapers. I quickly scan the ones I haven't gotten to all week long, before I plop them into the yellow bin and put them out for the dedicated waste management boys. (They come by without fail, every Tuesday morning except Christmas.)

This week on my peregrination to the parking strip I belatedly caught a red-hot Sunday column by Steve Duin of The O, who shares my disdain for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland's ongoing bankruptcy maneuvers. Like me, Duin is flabbergasted that the church would try to avoid paying full compensation to the many victims of priestly sexual abuse, many of whom were victimized when they were children.

The column is mostly about the archbishop's sudden "discovery" that parish real estate is not really the archdiocese's property, but rather being held in a hitherto unpublicized "trust" for the members of the congregation. That's not the most powerful point that Duin makes, however. In the course of leafing through a recent brief prepared by members of the archdiocese's army of bankruptcy lawyers (who have racked up $5 million or $6 million in fees to date), Duin says he found a quotation which, if he's accurately portrayed it, deepens my disgust. He wrote:

That brings us to the most cynical part of the Archdiocese's brief. Even if the First Amendment allowed exceptions to the church autonomy doctrine, the brief insists, that doesn't apply to the abused. Why? Because every claimant asserts that "at the time of their alleged sexual misconduct, they were members of or associated with the Roman Catholic Church, primarily through attendance at a Catholic school and/or parish church." [Emphasis added.]
Dear Lord, has it come to this? Now are we to believe that when a priest has sex with a child, it's the child's "sexual misconduct"?

I hope and pray that Steve Duin is misquoting that brief. Because if that's really the position of Archbishop John Vlazny, then our spiritual leader is one sick, sick man.

UPDATE, 12:26 p.m.: Here is the paragraph in question, taken from a brief signed by the archdiocese's lawyers, in Portland and Colorado Springs, and filed on November 7:

C. Even If There Were a Third Party Exception, the Tort Claimants Are Not Third Parties. The TCC has never established that the tort claimants here are third parties or strangers to the Church. Indeed, the evidence is the opposite. After reviewing complaints by 206 sexual misconduct claimants, Margaret Hoffman testifies that "[i]n every single one of these Complaints, the claimants assert that, at the time of their alleged sexual misconduct, they were members of or associated with the Roman Catholic Church, primarily through attendance at a Catholic school and/or parish church within the Archdiocese." Sec. Hoffman Decl. at ¶ 2. This, too, constitutes evidence that was not before the Spokane Court when it articulated a "third party" exception to the Church Autonomy Doctrine that the tort claimants had never impliedly consented to Catholic Church Doctrine or polity.

Margaret Hoffmann is a partner in the Schwabe Williamson law firm, which also represents the Archbishop.

I've posted the entire brief here.

UPDATE, 11/29, 12:30 p.m.: Hoffmann was misquoted by the other church lawyers. She never said "their." See my followup post here.

Comments (15)

I suspect that Perkins Coie comes up with this stuff, not Vlazny. Incidentally, didn't Perkins Coie do the audit on LC's squandered $10M?

The brief in question is said to have been filed by the Sussman Shank law firm. That firm also filed the bankruptcy plan and an accompanying statement, which can be found here. The language quoted by Duin is not in either of those two documents; there must have been a separate motion.

The Perkins firm supposedly represents the parishioners, who were brought into the case by the archdiocese's "trust" theory. I opted out of that group, because it doesn't represent me.

Maybe it's a combination of sloppy writing with an out-of-context quote. That is, the "their" and the "they" are different groups, not the same group as you are inferring. Could be that the "their" refers to the priests, and the "they" refers to the victims. Without the entire document, though, it's hard to know whether or not someone was just careless with pronouns, and that this carelessness caused the confusion. Let's hope so, because otherwise it's pretty sleazy of them to imply any responsibility on the part of the victims.

I'm getting the document today, but I am reliably informed that the quotation is accurate.

I opt for the sloppy writing theory. Change "their" to [the] and the extremely crass allegation is neutralized. I predict an amendment will be filed in response to Duin's article, OR (gasp) your blog.

I can hear the responsible attorney reaming some poor underpaid proofreader on this one. Perhaps the Catholics in the firm might want to consider an exorcism of the entire proofreading dept.

Sorry for double post but change "crass" to "actionable defammation" and diss my editorial skills. Wonder what Mr. Williams, Esq. is up to these days?

I've now set out in the post update the full paragraph from the Sussman Shank brief. There is no reference to the priests anywhere near the sentence in question, but there's ample reference to the victims.

Remember the headline in The Onion a few years back?
"Pope Forgives Molested Children".

Another thought or two: lawyers in this (or any) lawsuit are acting as agents for the parties they represent. It does not offend me at all to hold the parties responsible for the arguments made in their name and on their behalf by their lawyers. In my experience, clients read briefs in draft before they are filed and, more than that, participate in the development of strategies, arguments and tactics. And another thing: careless pronoun usage is not characteristic of high-priced lawyers.

This is absolutely not, in any way, no matter what, to any degree, a defense of anything that the Church is doing about this or anything else.

But in this case, I suspect that "their alleged sexual misconduct" is *supposed* to mean "the sexual misconduct on which they base their claims. "Their alleged sexual misconduct" like "their alleged injury," in other words. It's an absolutely horrific choice of words, and the Church has, on this issue, entirely earned the complete opposite of the benefit of the doubt. But unfortunately, lawyers are often terribly imprecise writers, and having read much worse writing than this would be in appellate briefs every day for almost two years, it's incredibly easy for me to believe they could have done this ridiculously stupid thing.

Of course, it is *also* possible that they entirely mean the meaning Jack took from it, because they certainly deserve every bit of cynicism that could possibly be aimed at them.

Thanks for posting the entire brief, Jack. For what it's worth, I left Margaret Hoffman's name out of the column because I did not have her original brief and I had no way of knowing if she intended to make the same argument that the lawyes at Sussman Shank did.

You know, I'm an ex-Catholic who is happy to believe the worst of the church... but I'm also a lawyer and a former editor, and mistakes like this do happen all the time, and I'm thinking it was a mistake. Careless pronoun usage is not actually that uncommon, even among us high-priced big-firm lawyers. (Frankly, it's not that uncommon to see typos on the scale of "And by 'Plaintiff,' I take it you mean... 'Defendant.'") I'd lay money that some sleepy associate meant to write "the," but was already thinking ahead to the next "they," and just biffed it. Bad mistake to let through before filing the brief, though.

Careless pronoun usage is not actually that uncommon, even among us high-priced big-firm lawyers.

I dunno. The brief that's excerpted in the post update here purports to be quoting from yet another document, which also appears to have been drafted by one of the church's lawyers.

If the use of "their" was a mistake in the first lawyer's document, why did the second set of lawyers take that language and repeat it? A second mistake?

I'm trying to get hold of the original Hoffman delaration, which I'll also post if I get it.

The Church's claim that children who are the victims of pedophiles is disgraceful, but less uncommon than many would beleive. In many child abuse prosecutions it is common to blame the 9-year old "vixen" for "seducing" the poor 40-year-old "victim."

Regardless of the Catholic church policies on gender, the recent cases reflect the hypocrisy of the church in its teachings on sexuality and responsibility. As such, it's conceivable that the Pope might consider that teaching anything about sexuality and sin NOT be permitted by the Catholic church, regardless of the security efforts on behalf of the children in each parish.

Protestant churches rarely mention sexuality except to cite scripture, and it's possible that the topic is so divisive and sensitive not be a part of the Catholic church doctrine, allowing parents to guide their children's morality, done remotely from church to parent as in other relgions. With respect to religion, it seems awkward to understand by sex should ever be a preoccupying focus in the first place. Where society depends upon procreation to prevent species extinction, what possible doctrine is the domain of the church to govern sexuality?


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Priest-child sex -- the child's "misconduct"?:

» (Late Night Hate . . . ) Jack Bog's Blog: Priest-child sex -- the child's "misconduct"? from PDXNAG.COM
. . . borne of miscommunication. "deepens my disgust" [ Jack Bog's Blog: Priest-child sex -- the child's "misconduct"? ] reductio ad absurdum Lawyers, as writers and readers, should be expected to recognize its' use. Need I call it an elementary legal rea [Read More]


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