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Diocese threatens bankruptcy

San Diego's Catholic churches may file in face of lawsuits over alleged sexual abuse by priests. Critics call it an attempt to avoid disclosures.

February 20, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A threat by the Roman Catholic diocese to file for bankruptcy in the face of lawsuits by people alleging they were sexually abused by priests is an attempt to prevent disclosure about the diocese covering up for such priests, an attorney representing victims said Monday.

"It's a bad idea for the church," said attorney Irwin Zalkin. "It's nothing but a way to protect this bishop and his predecessors -- to keep the truth from coming out."

In a letter to parishioners released Sunday, Bishop Robert Brom said the Diocese of San Diego is considering filing for Chapter 11 reorganization in Bankruptcy Court because the lawsuits on behalf of 143 people could, in effect, cripple the diocese.

The first of the lawsuits is set to begin trial next week. Filing for bankruptcy on the eve of trial is a strategy that has been used by some Roman Catholic dioceses faced with such lawsuits.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
San Diego Diocese: An article in Tuesday's California section about the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego considering bankruptcy said the average settlement nationwide for sex abuse lawsuits against priests was $1.3 million. The figure is calculated from recent settlements in California, not nationwide.

Filing a Chapter 11 petition would block the lawsuits from going to court but would begin a round of complex -- and costly -- legal wrangling in Bankruptcy Court. The bankruptcy judge could order negotiations between the diocese and lawyers representing the alleged victims.

So far, pretrial negotiations in the San Diego cases, overseen by a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court, have failed to reach a settlement.

Zalkin, who represents 45 clients, said that nearly five years of negotiations have shown him that the diocese is more interested in protecting its records and the reputations of its bishops and other high officials than in compensating victims.

La Jolla psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and now an expert on priests who become sexual predators, said he agrees with Zalkin that publicity, not money, is motivating the bankruptcy threat. Sipe has served as a witness in cases across the country.

"I'm convinced Bishop Brom does not want the information that would come out at trial to come out," he said.

Brom, appointed bishop in 1990, has been a low-key public figure -- unlike his predecessor, Leo Maher, who engaged in several controversies during his tenure, including banning a Catholic legislator who supported abortion rights from taking Communion.

The bankruptcy threat could also be a negotiating tactic. In Dallas, victims won a $119-million court judgment, but after the archdiocese threatened bankruptcy, they settled for $31 million.

Nationwide, the average settlement is about $1.3 million per claim. Brom, in his letter to parishioners, said the lawsuits, if successful, could require payments of up to $200 million.

"I feel I've been victimized again," said a woman who alleges she was molested for several years by her parish priest starting at age 8. "They're just trying to hide it again -- like they did years ago when they sent these priests from parish to parish."

Zalkin alleges that the San Diego Diocese often allowed priests who had been accused of sexually molesting parishioners elsewhere to transfer to San Diego and then moved them to different parishes when new allegations surfaced.

Mary Grant of Long Beach, western regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said, "Threats of bankruptcy are designed to guilt-trip victims and frighten Catholics so that testimony isn't given, the truth isn't exposed and the church isn't held accountable."

SNAP members sought unsuccessfully Monday to meet with Brom. Instead, they left a letter at the diocese asking that they be allowed to send their own letter to parishioners.

The San Diego Diocese, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties, has 98 churches, runs 50 schools and has nearly 1 million parishioners. If the diocese files for reorganization, it would be following a strategy begun by the Portland, Ore., diocese in July 2004. The dioceses in Spokane, Wash.; Tucson; and Iowa have also filed for bankruptcy.

For starters, a bankruptcy judge may be asked whether filing before a lawsuit goes to court is an appropriate use of bankruptcy law. Also, the church asserts that its parishes, and the real estate beneath them, should not be considered diocese assets, a controversial legal point.

The church also asserts that canon law prohibits it from using parish money -- donations given each Sunday by the faithful -- to settle lawsuits. Brom has promised his parishioners that money contributed "for the mission of the church" will not be used.

Zalkin said that the San Diego Diocese is one of the richest in the nation and that, aside from its own assets, it is protected by the Catholic Mutual Group insurance fund.

In December, the Los Angeles Archdiocese announced a $60-million settlement with 45 people, a small fraction of the 570 who have filed claims.

In his letter to parishioners, Brom said that allegations filed by 48 people have been settled without going to court. Of those, 18 accepted counseling and 30 received payments, he said.

In his letter, Brom repeated his apology to victims.

"I am profoundly sorry for this betrayal of trust in your lives," the letter said. "On behalf of those who have caused you pain, and in the name of the church, I beg your forgiveness."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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