Wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals sweeps Oregon

About 200 people have filed lawsuits in the past five years

Statesman Journal/July 7, 2004
By Alan Gustafson

When the Portland Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy Tuesday, Salem lawyer Daniel Gatti was far removed from the uproar. He was in Boston, attending a convention of American trial lawyers.

But Gatti, a leading litigator in a wave of lawsuits accusing Catholic priests of decades-old sexual abuse in Oregon, found time to criticize church leaders for taking the unprecedented step.

"It's shocking what they'll do to avoid compensating these victims," Gatti said. "They're biding for more time and public sympathy."

Gatti has represented dozens of plaintiffs in priest sex-abuse cases filed in Marion and Multnomah counties.

The cases range from a $28 million suit filed on behalf of seven men accusing a priest of molesting them while they were at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility three decades ago to multi-million-dollar suits filed on behalf of a dozen plaintiffs who claim they were molested long ago by priests with ties to the Mount Angel Abbey, a 100-year-old monastery about 20 miles east of Salem.

Those lawsuits are part of a sexual abuse scandal that has erupted in Oregon during the past five years.

Since 1999, roughly 200 people in Oregon have filed lawsuits claiming they were sexually abused by clergy or church personnel. The suits have been filed against the Portland Archdiocese, Baker Diocese in Eastern Oregon, Mount Angel Abbey and various religious orders.

The Portland Archdiocese, which covers Western Oregon, has paid $53 million to settle the claims of more than 130 accusers.

Nationally, that is the second-largest reported amount, after the $95 million spent by the Boston Archdiocese.

Oregon is one of a handful of states that allow a victim of child abuse to sue long after alleged molestations and rapes.

Specifically, Oregon law allows victims to file suit up to three years after they realize they were harmed by the abuse. That can be decades after the incidents occurred.

Many victims of childhood sexual abuse bury the emotional wounds caused by such trauma, lawyers and therapists say. It can take many years, even decades, for victims to confront those painful memories and realize how the abuse caused severe personal problems.

Gatti has said his empathy for victims stems, in part, from personal experience. He was sexually abused by a camp counselor when he was 9.

From Boston, Gatti said bankruptcy proceedings won't block additional plaintiffs from filing new suits against abusive priests and the Portland Archdiocese.

"I've got six more I plan on filing," he said.

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