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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

Diocesan bankruptcies place church workers at risk

Settlements have potential to create new set of victims


The caller left her number on my answering machine and asked that I contact her ASAP. The urgency in her voice left me puzzled. I wondered what had happened and why she was so insistent that I call her back right away.

I had known her as a nun in the early 1970s when we were both assigned to the same parish, she as a teacher in the parish school and I as assistant pastor. About 20 years ago she left her order and we largely lost contact with each other.

“I left the convent,” she once joked, “but somehow the convent never left me.” Her dedication to the church is still as strong as ever. She continues to work in a Catholic school in the Oakland, Calif., diocese for a salary and benefits much below what she could make in a public school. The modest pension that she will receive on retirement will at best enable her to live the same simple life she has always lived.

That is what she hoped for until the latest news caused her to call me in panic.

“Have you heard that the diocese of Oakland is thinking of declaring bankruptcy? If they declare bankruptcy, what will happen to people like me? I really depend on my retirement for my mortgage and other expenses.” I had no answer to give her.

The gut-wrenching stories of the victims of abuse, the bewilderment of the bishops and the huge payments that have already been awarded have taken up all the media’s attention. Nobody seems to have thought about the plight of the workers who make our parishes run and our schools function. There are thousands of these dedicated people whose retirements could well be at risk. Will their pensions be garnished along with other church assets to pay the fines? That is their great fear. The decisions of the courts can be disturbingly unpredictable at times.

Nobody begrudges just compensation for the victims of abuse; in fact, the question might be raised as to what could really be done to give them back their lives. But having said all that, the effects of impending litigation on people like my caller need to be addressed. Their numbers vastly outweigh those of the victims of sexual abuse. We need to consider their plight as well.

There is great fear too among us priests. What will happen to our schools, to our staffs, to our outreach to the less fortunate, to our own retirement plans? A great number of my colleagues are in parishes that are barely able to support their operations, and many not at all. Many parishes and schools would fold without help from other sources.

The Los Angeles archdiocese, like all other dioceses, subsidizes its less affluent parishes and schools. In addition, parishes such as ours have “adopted” less well-off parishes. What will happen to these efforts if the church is straddled with potentially crippling settlements?

To pay salaries, serve the people and support what we call the “corporal works of mercy” demand huge resources. The defense of these is not a matter of indifference. One has to admit that the bishops, for all their ineptitude and legal wrangling, are in a hard place. If they are careless managers of the temporal assets of the church, they risk losing them, and if they mount a legal defense to protect them, they will be considered heartless and unchristian.

Richard Sipe, a former monk described on his Web page as “uniquely qualified to provide insight into sexuality and the clergy,” recently took the Portland, Ore., bishop to task over declaring bankruptcy. Whatever the legal merits of such a strategy, and many would say it is a very risky one, the bishop has a legitimate concern for the temporal assets of the church. Salaries and retirement benefits cannot be paid without such resources.

Should we really be worried about such matters as material possessions? The plaintiffs’ lawyers have told us time and again that the issue is not money. They claim that they want to make their clients “whole.”

This emphasis on health rather than on money sounds strange in the light of a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, where the same lawyers were talking about huge settlements ranging up to one and a half billion dollars. Since lawyers’ fees in such cases usually are in the 40 percent range, the potential windfall for the victims’ attorneys is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. One is left to wonder who the real winners will be.

Yes and yes again, the victims of abuse have to be adequately compensated. That is a matter of simple justice. But let us not forget the cases of the many who, like my caller, have great fears for their futures just as the victims have terrible hurts from their past.

All sides of the discussions must be given a full hearing and all voices should be heard. Without that balance, a whole new set of victims will have been created.

Fr. Peter O’Reilly is pastor of St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Westlake Village, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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