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  Bankruptcy And The Bishop
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 3/10/07

Plaintive lawyers for alleged victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests are in a furious tizzy over Bishop Robert Brom’s decision to file for Chapter 11 protection on behalf of the Diocese of San Diego. Variously described as a cop-out, an outrage and a cowardly act, one unhappy attorney characterized the decision as a cynical attempt to keep the truth from coming out. Another said that if he were a Catholic in San Diego, he’d be embarrassed.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Here’s a contrarian view. I’m a Catholic in the Diocese of San Diego. I am not embarrassed about being a Catholic. Indeed, I am proud of my religion and I support the Bishop’s decision. Moreover, I resent some of the vicious criticism being uttered against it, mostly by lawyers who appear motivated mainly by greed. I believe, furthermore, that there is a certain amount of excess hysteria being generated by activist advocates of alleged victims.

But first, let’s be clear on one thing. I am not an apologist for priests who were pedophiles or for bishops who covered up their despicable acts and reassigned them to other ministerial duties. Nor do I question that abuse was committed. As far as I’m concerned, castration would be appropriate for those who sexually abuse children. As for their superiors found guilty of any cover-up, I favor exiling them to the north coast of Alaska for the rest of their lives. Do I state my feelings on the seriousness of sexual abuse against children clearly enough?

All that said, I find it worthy of note that “victims” of sexual abuse half a century ago have just lately gotten around to emerging from the shadows to seek their fortunes, now that million dollar settlements and jury awards are in fashion and California has eliminated the statute of limitation. Let’s assume that they all actually did suffer abuse and were traumatized and filled with shame. What finally made them decide to come forward and sue if not a chance at a monetary windfall? Still, I don’t want to trivialize the emotional damage they suffered and their entitlement to some kind of retribution. They were betrayed by their trusted priests who they probably believed to be incapable of wrongdoing. I believe that they should be made whole, if they can prove their allegations. I do not believe, however, that they should be made millionaires at the expense of the Catholic Church.

The diocese attempted to settle many of the 150 or so lawsuits brought against it. It became apparent that the demands would eventually exceed the financial resources of the diocese and its insurance coverage. Some claims would have been paid but others denied as liquid resources ran out. That would be grossly unfair to those victims who got little or nothing. Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection halts, for the time being at least, the individual cases from proceeding to trial. They will, instead, be consolidated under a bankruptcy judge who will sort things out. Individual settlements, however, will most likely be significantly lower than what a jury could award as punitive damages and therein, of course, lays the reason for the plaintiff lawyers’ indignation.

As everyone knows, punitive awards by juries have often lately exceeded the bounds of reasonableness and common sense. That’s especially true in highly emotional cases that have become causes celebres for activists, particularly when deep pockets are available to dip into. Recent settlements in abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange County averaged $1.3 million and $1.11 million, respectively. Juries often award far more. But how do you set a price on emotional damage stemming from an event that may have happened decades ago? In many cases, the perpetrators are dead, witnesses are non-existent, unavailable or unreliable and then, of course, there is the unreliability of childhood memories to consider. Judges tend to take a less emotional view than juries do. Most judges have heard it all before. Jurors are more easily shocked and typically more sympathetic and magnanimous toward victims.

This sordid business has been a huge tragedy for the Catholic Church and those guilty of sexual abuse or of knowingly allowing abusers to have contact with children should be severely punished. Public anger should be focused on them, not on the entire Church which includes its members. The Church and the great majority of its priests have been a strong force for good and a generous source of assistance to the poor and downtrodden. No one who truly cares for our community should want to see it irreparably damaged financially because of the crimes of a relatively small minority of its priests.

Bankruptcy was not a cop-out. It was a business decision that any organization might have made under similar circumstances. Venomous attacks against the Church as a whole are unfair but, I suppose, not surprising, coming as they do from the plaintiff lawyers who will likely now be denied the huge fees that overly-generous jury awards would have generated. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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