Diocese hit with 21 new claims

None involves recent abuse, attorney says

The Spokesman Review, Washington/November 3, 2009

Tags: bankruptcy claims Diocese Bankruptcy priest sex abuse Spokane Catholic Diocese

Twenty-one new claims of clergy sex abuse have been filed against the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, a number that has surprised the diocese and could reopen its contentious bankruptcy case.

None of the new allegations - called future claims - was made by children alleging recent abuse, said diocese attorney Greg Arpin. Instead, they are accusations by adults who contend they were sexually abused by priests and other diocese clergy years ago and are just now able to link that abuse to financial damage and other problems in their lives.

Seven of the claims have been allowed by a court-appointed claims reviewer who weighs the merits of the allegations and then decides how much money a victim gets.

Five of the claims have been denied, and the remaining nine are pending.

In recent U.S. Bankruptcy Court filings the diocese said it disagreed with some of the claims allowed by the reviewer, Kate Pflaumer, a former U.S. attorney for Western Washington.

The diocese wants to challenge those decisions and indicated it would do the same for some of the other pending claims. But it wants to do so in secrecy and has asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams to once again seal court records from the public. Details of claims settled through the bankruptcy 2 1/2 years ago were likewise sealed.

A court hearing is scheduled Wednesday.

Unknown is whether the diocese will have to collect more money from parishioners to pay the new claims. Catholic churchgoers already gave about $10 million as part of the $48 million settlement that was split among 184 people who were sexually abused over decades by Catholic clergy in Eastern Washington.

The diocese has posted on its Web site the names of 27 priests, Jesuits and members of other Catholic religious orders who ministered in the region and sexually abused children.

The money was supposed to end a troublesome chapter of the local Catholic ministry. Yet the settlement also established a $1 million fund to handle what the diocese assumed would be very few "future claims."

Arpin acknowledged Monday that the number of these claims is surprising.

If the $1 million set aside to pay future claims is drained, the diocese must replenish it. The settlement calls for a $200,000 minimum fund balance for nine years. Those financial terms are collateralized by parish property.

Dillon Jackson, an attorney representing some of the people making the new claims, called the diocese’s efforts to overturn Pflaumer’s allowance of claims improper and a violation of the comprehensive settlement.

He also argued against sealing court records.

"The potential that there may be exhibits or references to details of future tort claims is not grounds for a comprehensive cover-up," Jackson wrote. "Diocese counsel are sufficiently clever to separate sensitive arguments and exhibits in discrete pleadings."

Arpin said the diocese is attempting to comply with the settlement’s broad confidentiality requirements that keep secret the names of victims, payment details and the names of some accused clergy.

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