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Sunday, July 24, 2005

The shepherd who hides behind the flock

Well, I've been sued. As have about 389,000 other Roman Catholics here in Western Oregon. The federal court overseeing the bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of Portland has decided to turn the case into a "defendant class action," in which each and every member of the congregation is a defendant.

It's a virtually unheard-of type of court proceeding -- and doubly so since people are now being dragged into court because of nothing more than their religious affiliation.

This development is going to cause all sorts of confusion and fear among the faithful when they start getting the letters breaking the news to them. "Greetings! You're now being sued individually by the people who were sexually abused by priests when they were children." Imagine an elderly pensioner or recent immigrant trying to figure that one out. There will be lots of misunderstanding. And worry. And other very un-Christ-like feelings.

Even the calmer souls are going to have some serious questions. Can individual parishioners be held liable and forced to pay damages? So far, the story in the media is that they can't.

Well, that's a relief. But the problems don't stop there. Does this mean that when Catholics now fill out credit and insurance applications which ask if they're parties to any lawsuits, they now have to say "yes"? Do you know what that will do to the prospects of getting speedy approval? Or does the archdiocese suggest that Catholics simply lie and answer the question "no"?

Is causing further anxiety and outrage on the part of rank-and-file Catholics the latest archdiocesan strategy? Is the idea now to try to get the folks in the pews all upset at those evil, evil former altar boys who dare to point their fingers at the priests who molested them as children?

If so, it may backfire badly. Consider this: Churchgoers have the right to "opt out" of the class. If they do, we are told, the plaintiffs will then sue them individually.

And to me, that's where it could get interesting. I'm no expert on these matters, but what if a sizeable number of parishioners opted out, got sued individually, and then conceded the case? In other words, what if, as a party to the lawsuit, a parishioner appears and waives any claim she might have to anything that the church has? What will be the consequences if a group of Catholics go to the court and say: "The victims are right! Pay them what they are owed. If they're being unreasonable in their demands for damages -- and some of them probably are -- then their cases need to be tried. And if that means the archdiocese's dirtiest laundry gets aired out in public, so be it. It would be very healthy for all concerned if all the facts of these cases came out."

Then they might turn to the defense table and add: "Stop using us as a shield, Archbishop Vlazny. Take your lumps, pay our debts, and let's get it over with. Mortgage some property and sell some more, and settle these cases.

"You guys screwed up. People's lives were ruined. Don't make it worse by hassling all us little people over it."

It probably wouldn't have much legal consequence. But it wouldn't seem at all inconsistent with something a very bright man once said: "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied."

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