SPOKANE, Wash. – Roman Catholic parishioners who saw the Spokane Diocese fall into bankruptcy because of sex abuse cases against their clergymen now are being asked to help pay molestation victims and bail out the diocese.
"I've been telling them the focus here is on the children who were hurt and doing what we can to bring them some sort of compensation, some sort of healing," said the Rev. Edgar Borchardt, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the college and farm town of Pullman, about 80 miles south of Spokane.
A Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization plan approved last month commits the diocese to pay $48 million — including $10 million from 82 parishes — to settle as many as 177 old claims of sexual abuse.
That $10 million is roughly what the diocese's 95,000 parishioners normally put in the collection plate in a year.
Home to Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the diocese is the smallest and poorest of five nationwide that have sought bankruptcy protection against clergy sex abuse lawsuits.
Skylstad is himself raising an additional $6 million toward the bankruptcy settlement, and Catholic agencies, such as cemeteries, children's' homes and charities, are being asked to contribute another $6.5 million. Insurance settlements will pay the rest.
Over the next few weeks, parish priests will sell the settlement to the people in the pews, said Bob Hailey, a Spokane lawyer and executive in a grass-roots capital campaign to help parishes raise their share.
How that pitch is made is up to individual priests in each parish, Hailey said.
Borchardt's church began its campaign early, in February. The congregation's 350 families already have raised — in cash and pledges — about 80 percent of the $250,000 assessment the parish is expected to contribute, he said.
Some parishioners are angry at Skylstad for taking the diocese into bankruptcy, while others balk at paying bankruptcy lawyer fees. Still others question why they should pay for priests who molested children decades ago in other parishes, Borchardt said. The pastor has evoked the parable of the good Samaritan, who stopped to help a man who had been beaten and robbed when others looked the other way.
"The good Samaritan was not at all responsible for the problem, but he was the one who took care of the problem," Borchardt said. "We try to keep the focus on the healing of those who survived the abuse and healing of the people in the pews. This has been fairly traumatic for people in the pews, too."
The Rev. Mike Savelesky, co-chairman of the Association of Parishes, a group of pastors and laity formed to protect the assets of individual parishes, told his parishioners their church's future may rest on the success of the campaign.
Savelesky is pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a large church and one of four Spokane-area parishes being used as collateral to secure loans for the diocese.
It is also the former home of former priest Patrick O'Donnell, who admitted to molesting dozens of young boys. Skylstad shared a parish residence in the early 1970s with O'Donnell.
Victims groups accused Skylstad of covering up knowledge of O'Donell's misdeeds, charges the bishop has denied.
Savelesky and his fellow priests must persuade their parishioners that the settlement amounts they must raise are not punitive, but are the right thing to do for people who were abused as children.
"Although money does not heal, in our nation's legal system, victims of abuse have a right to just compensation," Savelesky wrote his parishioners.
If $47 million of the $48 million is not turned over to a bankruptcy trustee by Dec. 31, parishes will be required to take out loans to make up the shortfall.
"What I'm hoping is, people realize this is not a campaign we can afford to fail," Hailey said. "We will rely on all parishioners to share a part of the burden."
Not everyone feels that's fair.
During the bankruptcy confirmation hearing April 24, Leo Driscoll, a retired Spokane lawyer who attends Sacred Heart Church in South Spokane, opposed confidentiality wording in the settlement. He said it won't allow parishioners to audit claims that could be false, or to learn more about priests who may have molested children.
Skylstad last month rejected a call to resign by four prominent Catholics who vowed they would not contribute "one dime" because the settlement was not subject to a vote of parishioners.
The reorganization plan confirmed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams will pay victims from $15,000 to $1.5 million each, depending on the severity of the molestation or rape. A former U.S. attorney will hear claims and decide how much each person receives.
The Spokane Diocese, which serves Catholics in 13 Eastern Washington counties, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2004.
The other dioceses which have filed for bankruptcy protection include San Diego; Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Ore.; and Tucson, Ariz. Tucson has emerged from bankruptcy protection, while Portland's reorganization plan also has been approved.
Paul McNabb, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in northwest Spokane since 1960, said he will contribute to the campaign.
"I see it as a compassionate way of helping out, of justly compensating the victims of abuse and also helping the diocese to continue with its operations," McNabb said.