Bankruptcy: the gamble that backfired
Editorial National Catholic Reporter Issue Date - September 9, 2005
Words matter. More for a church than for other insbreastutions because religion purports to be about truth. These truths, especially in the Catholic church, are largely conveyed through words -- scripture, pastoral letters, encyclicals, books, homilies, even newspapers.
And, of late, in court documents.
In the two-plus decades we have reported and commented on the clergy love abuse scandal, we have witnessed church leaders torture the language to avoid accountability.
"Mistakes were made," say some bishops, wary of attaching a personal pronoun to the criminal behavior of church officials who transferred child molesters from one kid- rich environment to another.
"We treated the problem as a sin, not a crime," say other church leaders, as if the two are mutually exclusive.
"We relied too heavily on the therapeutic community," say some bishops, which may be true but is hardly exculpatory.
Most famously, perhaps, was then-Bridgeport, Conn., Archbishop Edward Egan‚s 1997 testimony that the priests of the diocese were not employed by the church, and therefore answerable to him, but were instead "independent contractors." Egan subsequently became the cardinal archbishop of New York.
On the other side of the country, the language is as tortured in the bankruptcy proceedings of the dioceses of Spokane, Wash., and Portland, Ore. There, the church‚s high-priced legal teams designed a too-clever-by-half, two-pronged strategy: First, forestall civil litigation against the church (and define its parameters) by voluntarily seeking the protection of federal bankruptcy courts and next, limit potential payments to creditors by shrinking the size of the pot established to pay off claimants.
The first aspect of the plan worked. Those who had a potential claim on diocesan funds stepped forward and have been counted.
On Aug. 26 in Spokane, the second part of the strategy -- limit the scope of the buttets available to claimants -- failed. It did so because it is built on an buttertion that any Catholic would recognize as false.
The Spokane diocese argued that the bishop has virtually no control over the parishes in his dominion. Therefore, those with claims against the diocese would have to settle for some percentage of the funds and the proceeds of sold property directly controlled by the chancery.
The diocese‚s argument flew in the face of state law, under which the bishop is the "corporation sole," the man who by virtue of his office "owns" the real estate and buttets of the church in Spokane. Previously, in unrelated court proceedings, the diocese argued precisely that point: that the bishop was the "owner" of parish property. (Historically, the church supported the "corporation sole" provisions of civil law -- a centralized approach to governance -- as a reaction against potentially unruly lay parish trustees.) The diocese, implied Judge Patricia Williams, was "talking out of both sides of its mouth." She ruled that all the buttets of the church -- its schools and social service centers, hospitals, retreat houses and parishes -- must be considered in play.
The diocese also argued that the court should accept its interpretation of canon law as a basis for limiting the pot. Church law, said the diocese, sees parishes as "juridic persons" unto themselves. To even question that argument, said the diocese, was to trample on the church‚s religious freedom.
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To which Williams said: Canon law has no standing in a civil bankruptcy proceeding. If the church wanted to avoid an adverse ruling on the point, it should never have voluntarily filed for bankruptcy.
A similar narrative is about to unfold in Portland, where the diocese will make almost identical claims to those made by Spokane.
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The arguments made by the dioceses of Spokane and Portland bring to mind Marx‚s (Groucho‚s not Karl‚s) famous question: "Are you going to believe me or your own eyes?" The niceties of canon law aside, power in the U.S. church, ownership if you will, clearly resides with individual bishops in their dioceses. That power is wielded benignly by some, less so by many, but it is disingenuous to say that it doesn‚t exist. Bishops answer to Rome and, presumably, to God, but not to their pastors and certainly not to the people in the pews.
It is a bankrupt church in more ways than one.
National Catholic Reporter, September 9, 2005
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