Sex claims bankrupt US archdiocese


A Roman Catholic archdiocese in the US is to declare bankruptcy because it cannot meet the cost of claims by people allegedly abused by its priests.

The Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, will be the first in the US to do so.

The action will suspend the start of a civil trial of a priest accused of molesting more than 50 boys.

Other US Roman Catholic dioceses are also facing bankruptcy, or have had to sell property, to meet the cost of abuse claims brought against priests.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy - the legal term for the action taken by the Portland Archdiocese - gives an organisation freedom from legal action by creditors while it reorganises, but cedes some control over finances to the courts.

In February 2004, a report commissioned by the Church said more than 4,000 Roman Catholic priests in the US had faced sexual abuse allegations in the last 50 years.

It said more than 10,000 children - a large majority boys - were allegedly abused, but victims' representatives said this was an underestimate.

The Archdiocese of Portland has already settled claims by some 130 people who say they were abused by priests, paying out more than $53m.

The current claim, for three times that sum, concerns alleged abuse by the late Reverend Maurice Grammond, who was accused of assaulting more than 50 boys in the 1980s.

'A corrupt tactic'

Dozens of other claims are pending.

Archbishop John Vlazny said the archdiocese tried to settle with the plaintiffs, but could not afford their offer. "The pot of gold is pretty much empty right now," he said - a claim dismissed by the plaintiffs.

Other dioceses, such as Tucson in Arizona, have said they are considering bankruptcy, and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in New Mexico has had to borrow from parish savings accounts to avoid the step.

But Jim Devereaux, one of the plaintiffs who has filed a lawsuit against the Portland church, says he is suspicious of its reasons for filing for bankruptcy.

"I think they would have met us in court today, if they'd been facing up to their responsibilities. I think this is just another corrupt tactic of the Roman Catholic Church archdiocese of Portland," he told the BBC's World Today programme.

Lost prestige

Professor Chuck Zech, an expert in Catholic church finances, told the Associated Press: "For a diocese to give up control like this, control over a lot of important decisions, a lot of spending decisions - it's totally uncharted."

There are concerns that Chapter 11 bankruptcy could also open church records to public scrutiny, and require church leaders to cede some financial control to the courts.

Boston, one of the largest archdioceses in America and the place where the sex abuse scandal began more than two years ago, opted to sell property instead.

Throughout the US, sex abuse cases have cost more than $650m but the Church is also paying a heavy price in lost prestige and damage to its moral authority.

adam on Wednesday 07 July 2004 - 23:03:48