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Judging the Catholic Church
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 11/9/07

By way of disclaimer, let me say up front that I am a practicing Catholic (as opposed, say, to the cafeteria types who selectively practice aspects of their faith or the twice-a-year Catholics who attend mass on Christmas and Easter). I admit, therefore, to a tendency to react somewhat defensively when I hear critics of the Church, including some part-time or estranged Catholics, taking advantage of the notoriety over the sex abuse scandals to unfairly malign the entire Church and its clergy in general and the Diocese of San Diego in particular.

The Diocese of San Diego filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection early this year after concluding that the demands by 150 or so alleged victims of sexual abuse would exceed its insurance coverage and the available financial resources controlled by the diocese. Otherwise, some claims would have been settled but others denied before available funds ran out, so not only was the decision to file reasonable from a business and legal point of view, it seemed the fairest thing for all the victims under the circumstances.

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]

The decision provoked a furious reaction from some of the plaintiff lawyers and their clients who hoped for deeper pockets to tap and who described the decision as, inter alia, a cop-out, an outrage, a cowardly act and “a cynical attempt to keep the truth from coming out”. They alleged that the diocese had sufficient assets at its disposal to pay, presumably, whatever a trial jury decided was fair compensation for the victims. As everyone knows, juries tend to be magnanimous in this regard.

In the ensuing months, Judge Louise DeCarl Adler missed few opportunities to chide the diocese for its accounting methods and its position that many of the properties to which Bishop Robert Brom held title were held in trust for individual parishes. Meanwhile, San Diego’s only major daily newspaper assumed what appeared to be a belligerent rather than neutral editorial and reporting stance toward the diocese even as the case was proceeding, probably contributing to increasing anti-Catholic sentiment in the community.

After about eight months and several reported threats by Judge Adler to throw out the bankruptcy case and permit individual trials to proceed, the diocese reached agreement with plaintiffs and requested that she dismiss the bankruptcy. According to newspaper reports, she said that she had planned to do so without comment until she received a mailing from her former parish asking her to help the diocese pay for the settlement. The mailing, sent to parishioners throughout the diocese, included a financial breakdown which she reportedly described as less than candid, saying that there was ample property the church (diocese?) could sell or mortgage to fund the settlement. The San Diego Union-Tribune, moreover, quoted her as saying: “Chapter 11 is not supposed to be a vehicle, a method, to hammer down the claims of those abused.”  The newspaper further reported that Judge Adler scolded the church (diocese?) for being “disingenuous” in reporting its finances to parishioners as part of a campaign to fund the settlement. Before delivering her “rebuke”, the newspaper account said, Adler “was moved to tears by several victims who stepped forward to thank her for her work.”

In my opinion, this is rather remarkable behavior by a judge. Judges are supposed to be impartial and unemotional, I thought. Isn’t it juries that often have to be instructed to not let their emotions affect their judgment? If Judge Adler believed the financial reporting to be disingenuous, why did she agree to dismiss the bankruptcy? The mailing to the parishioners asked for voluntary contributions. It is purely a matter between parishioners and their bishop and pastors. What business is it of Adler’s in her capacity as a judge? And what is it with this language about “hammering down the claims of the abused?” Is there no room for negotiation in these matters or is the diocese supposed to be held to a different legal standard and just pay whatever is demanded by the plaintiff attorneys who, of course, know what’s fair and are never motivated by greed?

Diocesan officials, while expressing gratitude that dismissal was granted, enabling the terms of the settlement with the victims to be implemented, expressed disappointment that the presumption continues, as if it were a legal conclusion, that the assets of non-diocesan institutions and parishes are available to the diocese for settlement of abuse claims. The bankruptcy proceedings did not establish that they were. Parish properties belong to the parishes. If they are sold, the proceeds must be returned to the parishes whose members provided the donations and sacrifices to fund them in the first place.

Sexual abuses, most dating back decades ago, many involving perpetrators now deceased, and the admittedly insufficient efforts by the Church in the past to protect children from these abusers, have constituted an acutely painful tragedy for the Catholic Church as well as for the victims. In my opinion, it has since acted far more aggressively than most other organizations have, including public school systems, to eliminate this scourge and to reach out with compassion to the victims. It has been said by some, however, that no amount of money can adequately compensate them for what they have endured. There will always be, then, disagreement over how much is fair. The Church and her members, though, also deserve fairness and closure. Judge Adler should have provided that closure when she dismissed the bankruptcy. Instead, she denied closure and precipitated further media and public criticism of the Church by her emotional rebuke of the diocese.

The Catholic Church, its clergy and its members have been a powerful force for good and charitable works in this community and throughout the world. It should not be overshadowed by past sins committed by a relative few. Should the Church’s ability to raise funds to support its charitable mission be impaired, the community and the many needy persons who benefit from Catholic generosity will become victims, too. CRO

copyright 2007 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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