Seven years of scandals? Try 25

Sunday evening the Catholic diocese of Wilmington, Del. filed for bankruptcy protection — just ahead of the start of Monday morning trials to weigh the claims of potentially hundreds of victims of clergy sex abuse. This is big news here in the United States — and also abroad. As in the Irish Times article just referenced, it is being treated as a business story as well as, if not more, than a religion story.

But the writer of the Telegraph article seems to have suffered a spot of hopefully temporary amnesia.

“This is a painful decision, one that I had hoped and prayed I would never have to make,” the Rev W. Francis Malooly, the bishop of the diocese, said in a statement on the diocese’s website.

Wilmington is the seventh US Catholic diocese to seek bankruptcy protection since the church abuse scandal erupted seven years ago in the Archdiocese of Boston.

The Wilmington diocese covers Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and serves about 230,000 Catholics.

Well, no. The sexual abuse scandals, or the revelations and lawsuits and victim’s rights movements, didn’t begin to erupt seven years ago. If you want an official beginning, one where the press really began to pay attention, it would be with the charges and trial of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe in a small Louisiana community more than 25 years ago. Read that story (or this article), and you get what was a fresh look at the tragedies whose repercussions have at intervals rocked the Catholic Church since.

Part of what’s going on in the Wilmington story is that the state allowed for a two-year lifting of the statute of limitations moratorium on sex abuse cases against the diocese. So some of the claims may indeed be decades-old, as this Baltimore Sun article points out:

The Wilmington diocese faces a flood of litigation unleashed by the Delaware Child Victims Act of 2007, which opened the two-year window during which individuals could file claims no matter how long ago the abuse was alleged to have occurred. The window closed in July.

In Maryland, where Archdiocese of Baltimore officials said earlier this decade that 83 priests or men in religious orders had been accused of abuse since the 1930s, repeated attempts to enact similar legislation have been unsuccessful. Without such a law, an archdiocesan spokesman said, a bankruptcy filing here is unlikely.

Of course, the “local” press would have a strong interest this story — and because some of the accused clergy apparently were also in Maryland parishes, the Sun includes the local angle. One question I haven’t seen addressed is what influenced the state of Delaware to lift the statute of limitations — while Maryland did not? As well as the ethical ones, there are most likely financial and political ones.

Let me give a cheer for the home team (oh yes,can you believe our Phillies?) and argue that the combo by Godbeat pro David O’Reilly and colleague Mari Schafer in the Philadelphia Inquirer explores thoroughly many of the important facets of this complex story. O’Reilly and Schafer dig pretty deep into the business angle, and offer a few bits of information I didn’t see in other pieces — including this:

Several suits also name two religious orders, the Norbertines and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and charge that their members abused students at high schools they operate within the diocese.

Only the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington Inc. is seeking reorganization under Chapter 11. Its parishes are legally distinct corporations under state law, although a state superior court is due to rule on whether parish property can be included as part of the diocese’s assets.

The implications of these lawsuits could be profound, not solely for the diocese, but for parishes and these two religious orders (my daughter attended a Norbertine-supervised parochial elementary school). In a small diocese, with a large amount of potential victims, the possibilities of multiple judgements against the diocese could change the face of Catholicism in Delaware.

So it’s good that the writers also spoke to lay Catholics — although no one who allegedly was abused. If the article had focused solely on lawyers and spokespeople, it would seemed even more like a giant chess game than it is already. However, it would have been good if a writer had interviewed a parish priest, or a brother in a monastery. How is he feeling as his diocese, and his brother clergy, go through another trial in the court of public opinion?

Sadly, what sometimes gets lost in these stories is the humanity, not only of the alleged victims, but of the clergy, the alleged perpetrators, and yes, of the lawyers — not to mention laypeople in parishes where their “Father” might have been an abuser. If the Wilmington story continues to be covered mostly as a business deal (which it is) and the psychological and spiritual angles are omitted, it may be an indication of the fact that we’ve been hearing these awful tales for almost a quarter-century. But that still won’t make it right.

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  • dalea

    From the Irish Times:

    A civil case brought by a 57-year-old man who claims he was molested more than 100 times by a now-defrocked priest was due to start yesterday.

    This sounds more like a bad relationship than molestation, to me at least.

  • dalea

    From the Irish Times:

    The diocese estimates its total assets as between $50 million and $100 million in the court documents.

    Estimated debts are given as between $100 million and $500 million, while the total number of creditors is estimated to be between 200 and 999.

    In my limited experience with bankruptcies, the declarer submits an inventory of possesions aranged into a number of classifications. These would run to: cash on hand, real property, personal property, art, supplies on hand, etc. Then the court gets an impartial opinion on the values of these assets.

    Same with the liabilities. They should be knowable, to a great extent, and listable. Divided into: regular and recurring, ordinary, variable and extraordinary.

    The court then appoints someone to handle what funds there are. Some things will continue to be paid; in the case of real property, the exterminator always is kept on.

    The accounting here seems odd. With an integrated system, AP could print up a 90 day register of bills owed in about 20 minutes. Thomas Neuberger, a lawyer based in Wilmington, Delaware, who represents 88 people with abuse claims against the diocese wants to bring in forensic accountants to go through the books. Which is very expensive, but he may know something he is not saying.

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  • Max

    The local paper, the (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal, published a triple-bylined story today with reactions to the diocese’s bankruptcy filing from mostly interested (and some disinterested) parties.

    The headline: “Bankruptcy seen as hostile move.” Seen by whom, you ask? The lede says “bankruptcy experts, attorneys and advocates.”

    Well, naturally, the attorneys of those who were set to go to trial are going to criticize the move.

    But there’s an interesting wrinkle: The diocese’s bishop, Francis Malooly, says that the filing was necessary to ensure that ALL of the 140+ claimants, not just the ones at the head of the line, receive appropriate compensation. If the diocese didn’t file for bankruptcy protection, the bishop says, the first few cases that went to trial could have drained the diocese of all it has, leaving the remaining claimants with no chance of being compensated.

    So, essentially, the attorneys who are angry about the filing are the ones whose clients stood to benefit at the expense of the other claimants.

    Yet nowhere in the article do we hear from anyone associated with those other claimants — that is, those whose trials had not yet been scheduled — who now have a better chance of getting a payout because of the bankruptcy filing.

    That’s a glaring omission, especially since one would assume that the attorneys representing those “back of the line” claimants have every reason to come to the defense of the diocese’s strategy.

  • Roxanne Hemmelgarn

    What Federal Courthouse is open on Sunday that the
    Bankruptcy Case could have been filed? Did they
    especially open up the Courthouse just for the
    diocese? How many federal employees did that incur?
    How much extra money did that cost? Who will pay for
    that?…Annie

  • will47

    No special treatment for the diocese. Sunday bankruptcy filings are not uncommon. Many companies file on Sunday because less business is transacted on weekends. The minute the filing is made, all property of the debtor becomes property of the estate, so the thinking is that there are fewer transactions to disentangle with a weekend filing (though I would think this would be less so with a church). Also, bankruptcy filings can generally be made electronically now.

    Max, I suspect the attorneys representing the claimants with later trial dates aren’t that enthusiastic about the bankruptcy, even if it was made for their purported benefit. I don’t know too many plaintiff’s attorneys who like it when the defendant files for bankruptcy.

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