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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Forgive us our trespasses, as we rub your nose in them

Yesterday we got in the mail what I hope is the last notice from the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland about its infernal bankruptcy. Now that dozens of victims of sexual abuse by priests (and of coverup) have bitten the bullet and agreed to settle their cases against the church, the archbishop is asking all the parishioners in western Oregon to please not object to the final bankruptcy plan. That plan will pay off most of the current plaintiffs and prevent other victims of long-past abuse from coming forward with more claims for money damages, and it will keep out of the public eye a lot of the details of the deplorable conduct in which Portland-area priests engaged, and which their superiors covered up, over many decades.

The reason everybody in the pews is getting the notice is because the church tried to duck out of its responsibility to the sexual abuse victims by arguing that all the church property in the archdiocese's name really isn't the archdiocese's. According to the weaselly church lawyers, under "canon law" (which they're now calling "ecclesiastical law"), the real property belongs to the various individual parishes, even though title is in the archbishop. This theory was news to just about everybody in the congregation, but hey, it served the church's purposes. And so they made every Catholic in the archdiocese a defendant to the sexual abuses lawsuits, unless the parishioners opted out -- which, after a lot of thought and prayer, our family did.

What did the archdiocese get by declaring bankruptcy? It got most of the victims' cases settled -- and its insurance companies to cough up a chunk of dough toward paying them off -- and above all, it avoided public trials about most of the sexual abuse claims. Oh, there were one or two claims that were aired out in a courtroom -- tales of all sorts of grab-a*s being played by the priests with the altar boys -- but they were quickly settled before the gory details of any of the others were aired out.

For this fine service, the church has paid its bankruptcy lawyers more than $10 million -- probably way more, although a final tally has not yet been published. Did it save that much out of pocket in paying off the claimants and collecting on insurance? I doubt it. If the archbishop got anything for those eight figures, it was keeping details out of the media.

It's been an awful, awful moment in church history, and the latest notice keeps the extreme darkness coming. The sexual abuse victims are now sanitized down to being "tort claimants." Touted as a big part of the settlement is the fact that the church is now finally going to get its legal affairs in order so that in the future it can claim that each parish owns its own property. As if this self-serving activity is somehow supposed to be a victory for justice. And of course, there's no indication that the people in the pews are going to get anything new to say about what happens to church assets. For all we know, the new "charitable trusts, endowments, non-profit religious corporations, or other charitable entities" that are going to be formed will all be under the direct control of the archbishop. Nothing in the bankruptcy plan appears to change that. Meet the new boss -- same as the old boss.

The church will borrow a bunch of money from the Allied Irish Bank to pay $40 million in damages out of its own pocket. Another $52 million in damages will be taken care of by the archdiocese's insurance companies. No operating property of the church will be sold -- just mortgaged. Forty million of mortgage on property worth an estimated half-billion. Should have been done long ago.

As far as this notice informs us, there's nothing in the final plan about reforming the way the church handles sexual abuse claims. Nothing in there about changing the way priests and other church personnel interact with young people. Sure, the archdiocese has made strides in these areas, but apparently the final bankruptcy plan will do nothing to prevent its backsliding.

And then the piece de resistance -- it concerns the parishioners' chance to find out more, make comments to church officials, and ask questions, about the bankruptcy plan. Why, the notice says there are meetings scheduled for all that, sure. But space is going to be limited, so please appoint someone from your parish to come. Please don't show up yourself. Oh, and don't bring your reporter friends -- the press is barred.

The meeting for the entire Portland area will be one night at some church in Milwaukie. Other than that, you'll have to drive to Eugene or Grants Pass.

But here's the best part: The notice, which we received yesterday, states that the meeting in the Portland area will be held on Thursday night, March 22.

They're having confessions this week around town for us Catholics. I guess I'd better go, because, try as I might, I can't forgive this. All I feel is shame, and it just goes deeper and deeper.

Comments (14)

As a former altar boy raised in a conservative east coast catholic family who abandonded the church long ago, all I can I say is I don't know how any intelligent person can continue to believe anything the church says. In my opinion, it's all about power and money and has nothing to do with God (thank goodness for that!).

No reason for you to feel shame; you didn't do anything wrong, and you are speaking out against the bad conduct. Rest easy.

I think the shame comes from not doing more than just blogging about it and opting out of the class action. Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the door, split, and took a bunch of people with him. What are we rank and file Catholics doing? A group called Voice of the Faithful has been active in challenging, in an organized way, church policies on sexual abuse. There should be more of that, especially here in Portland back when this misguided bankruptcy was still on the drawing boards.

"Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the door, split, and took a bunch of people with him."

The key point there is he split. The church is nothing more than a completely unnecessary layer of middle management. If you want to do something about it, in my opinion step one is to stop giving them any more money (assuming you have been). Best wishes.

Jack,I applaud your decision to leave an organization that long ago lost its' way. I, too left what used to be a church that I had attended for close to 20 years because of corruption in the leadership. It was a gut-wrenching decision but it was the right thing to do.

Frontline has a great documentary about one such case ("Hand of God" - It can be viewed in its entirety online). A very effective exhibit of just what it is to be on the victim's end of abuse and its attendant: administrative venality.

I read through this letter with a very familiar sense of disgust; As David Simon observed, you show me an institution and I'll show you how it betrays the people it's supposed to serve.

They should all be in OSP with their heads in the toilet while Bubba and the Boys take turns.

I applaud your decision to leave an organization

I didn't quit the church -- I just opted out of the defendant class in the lawsuit.

Jack, I'm curious...if you have serious qualms about the Catholic church, as you obviously do, why don't you leave it? How can you possibly hope to change the church when the bureaucracy that's in place is so vast and so strong? You're an incredibly smart, ethical and energetic person, but let's face it - Rome and the US bureaucracy aren't going to listen to you. After a decade of lawsuits in which they've now lost tens of millions of dollars, they won't even concede that they have any problems! If you want to remain true to your own moral values, you really have no choice except to leave.

"you show me an institution and I'll show you how it betrays the people it's supposed to serve."

As Jesus himself was betrayed by both secular and non-secular institutions of his day.

I think the trick is to focus on God and critique as led, even if no one but God is listening.

When Martin Luther nailed the list to the church door, he was attempting to reach a larger public audience. If he had the internet, I think Martin would have blogged about it.

Also, Luther did not leave the church until he faced excommunication hearings at the Diet of Worms. He worked very hard at reforming the Church from within until he was exiled.

So Jack, by blogging about the Church and trying to reform from within, you are acting more consistent with a young Luther. At least you are willing to take to the pulpit rather than wishing the abuse would never have seen the light of day.

"If you want to remain true to your own moral values, you really have no choice except to leave."

I disagree. Everyone has their own decision to make when it comes to their faith. There are many wonderful people who have participated in the Catholic religion...past and present. For all of the bad things that have happened within the Catholic Church many other great things have been done in its name in the field of education and service to the poor and the sick. The church needs to change that's for sure, but it is unlikely to change for the better without good people clamoring for change from within its ranks. Many could argue that it would be immoral to play the role of a Pontius Pilate by washing ones hands of the whole thing and walking away.

Thanks for sharing your observations on this sorry mess. My instincts told me a long time ago to focus my Christian faith on the Holy Bible and God. Church leaders both professional and lay have contributed greatly to my faith. However I know that they are like me, human and in theological terms, sinners. I don't expect perfection so I'm usually not deeply disappointed. This widespread, long term pattern of abuse and egregious cover up however, is beyond belief. Some whom we call leaders are clearly lacking the skill and courage to do what is right.

Jack, please forgive me for my lack of understanding as I'm just a dumb computer maker but what's the difference between leaving the Catholic system and "opting out" of a class action lawsuit? Also how does anyone "opt out" of being a defendant in any lawsuit unless such is approved by a judge?

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