23 Mar 2009

Powerful impact of 'open window' church sex abuse laws

NewsDay.com March 22, 2009


In Los Angeles, the Roman Catholic archdiocese cut its central staff in half and sold its 12-floor headquarters. In Tucson, the diocese sold 85 pieces of property in the Arizona desert. In Davenport, Iowa, church officials posted a "for sale" sign on the bishop's residence - then moved him into a modest bungalow.

Catholic dioceses across the United States have been hit with hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits stemming from child sex abuse cases in the past decade. Now, as lawmakers in Albany consider legislation that would create a one-year open window for victims to sue regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred, church officials warn it could bankrupt the Catholic Church in New York.

If the bill passes, it would become the third child sex abuse "open window" law in the country, after California and Delaware, whose two-year window closes in July. Legal experts said that in New York they anticipate hundreds of abuse victims, whose claims could involve not just the Catholic Church but also other religious institutions, public agencies and even long-ago cases of incest.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the 1.5-million member Diocese of Rockville Centre, said recently that the bill, sponsored by Assemb. Margaret M. Markey (D- Maspeth), could be "catastrophic" for the church.

"Financially it could bankrupt the Diocese of Rockville Centre," he said. "It could decimate Catholic education. It could decimate Catholic health care. It could decimate our parishes."

Advocates and trial lawyers who have represented sex abuse victims say churches have not gone out of business because of the claims, and that the potential consequences are being exaggerated. "No diocese has gone belly-up or even close," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a leading church/state expert.

Nonetheless, "open window" type legislation or even the simple accumulation of sex abuse lawsuits in places without such laws has had a powerful impact. Like Los Angeles, some locations have been forced to sell their headquarters and cut back on central office staff. But most also say no schools or parishes closed, and the cutbacks shielded most outreach services such as health care or programs for the elderly or homeless.

Dolan said it is difficult to compare different dioceses, and no one knows how an "open window" law would play out in New York. And Hamilton predicted numerous victims could come forward in New York because advocacy groups and lawyers representing victims are so much better organized now than they were in 2002 when the church sex scandal broke.

California cases To date, six dioceses in the United States have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because of the sex abuse cases, though in California - which passed a New York-style law in 2002 - only one of 12 dioceses filed. The total settlement bill in California was $1.2 billion for about 1,000 cases that included about 200 that did not involve the Catholic Church.

Church leaders in California say the payout was devastating.

"What happened here was a financial tsunami," said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which was hit with a $720-million bill to settle 553 abuse cases. "We took a tough hit, and I don't think we could take another."

Still, he said no parishes or schools were closed as a result of the settlement, and outreach services generally survived. Tamberg said that was partly the result of a deliberate decision by the 5-million-member archdiocese - the largest in the country - to protect its core ministries.

Selling the headquarters in downtown Los Angeles was a sign that "the hit is going to be taken by the administration first to protect the schools and the parishes," he said. The staff at headquarters has dropped from 450 to 200, he added.

Los Angeles survived the settlements partly because insurance covered about one-third, or $236 million, of the bill. The archdiocese was responsible for $292 million, which it raised in part by selling 51 properties including the headquarters. The rest of the settlement was covered by religious orders or others involved in the cases.

Tamberg said one case dated to 1929, demonstrating what he called the unfairness in the process.

"How do you defend a case that is a dozen years before Pearl Harbor? You can't," he said.

Irwin Zalkin, one of the lead plaintiff attorneys in the Los Angeles and San Diego cases, said that sales of church properties would easily raise billions to pay off any settlements and prevent any diocese from shutting down large parts of its operations. He also noted that church institutions, such as Catholic Charities that provide outreach services, receive substantial government funding.

He called talk of the church's potential demise in New York a "PR ploy. . . . I think they are crying wolf." He said he believes many of the dioceses that have gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection - San Diego; Portland, Ore.; Spokane, Wash.; Tucson; Davenport; and Fairbanks, Alaska - did so in an attempt to pay out less in settlements to victims.

Zalkin noted that the judge who handled the San Diego bankruptcy case, Louise DeCarl Adler, at one point warned the diocese against misusing bankruptcy proceedings.

"I decided this morning to reacquaint myself with the exact definition of 'disingenuous,' " the judge stated in court in 2007. "Chapter 11 is not supposed to be a vehicle or a method to hammer down the claims of the abused."

Chancellor Rodrigo Valdivia said the Diocese of San Diego had no comment on the judge's statement.

'Crippling' times Dioceses that have gone into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings say it hasn't been easy. In Spokane, officials shut down the diocesan youth ministry office and another that was in charge of evangelization.

In Davenport, where the headquarters went on the market last month and the staff has been halved, church officials aren't even sure where their new offices will be.

The bankruptcy proceedings were crippling, said Davenport diocese spokesman David Montgomery. "We're trying to provide services and it's hard to do if you are trying to get out of bankruptcy."

In Los Angeles, most essential missions were preserved, but Tamberg said he doubts that would be the case if another large settlement came.

"If this were to happen to us again," he said, "without a doubt I believe it would be catastrophic for the archdiocese."

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