WASHINGTON –– The Diocese of Spokane, Wash., reached a broad settlement May 26 agreeing to pay $1.5 million in unresolved abuse claims, legal and mediation expenses and to replenish its future claims fund.
The amount – significantly less than what had been projected – prevents the possible foreclosing of diocesan parishes and schools.
“This is an important and significant turning point in a very sad chapter of our diocesan history,” said Spokane Bishop Blase J. Cupich in a three-page letter distributed May 27 to Catholics in the diocese.
He also said he “cannot underscore enough how close we were to losing by foreclosure up to one-half of our parishes in Spokane County had the mediation process not intervened.”
The settlement will officially be filed with a bankruptcy court in Spokane in early June and is expected to be approved days later. As part of the agreement, appeals made against the diocese also will be withdrawn.
Bishop Cupich told Catholic News Service May 30 that the settlement lifted the threat of foreclosure that he said had been a “cloud over the hearts and minds of people here.”
But even with the relief of not losing parishes, he said, he wants “to be cautious about being celebratory because people were hurt.” He said he plans to be aggressive in his efforts to “continually reach out to victims and their families and to people who walked away from the church disgusted” in its role and response in the clergy abuse crisis.
The bishop, who was installed in the Spokane Diocese in 2010, also said the mediation process “personally demanded a good amount of my time.” Now that it’s over, he said he can focus on other areas that need attention.
Anecdotally, he said he has heard from pastors who described their parishioners as “pleased and even euphoric” about the agreement especially since it allows their parishes to remain open.
In his letter, the bishop said the diocese will be able to make the settlement payment through the contributions each diocesan parish has made to a specific fund. If parishes could not contribute to the fund, they were asked to borrow from a common fund established by donors and repay the loan within five years at zero percent interest.
The Spokane Diocese first filed for bankruptcy in 2004 while facing extensive sexual abuse claims. In 2007, it announced the settlement of 176 claims of childhood abuse by priests or other church personnel, paying $48 million in compensation claims ranging from $15,000 to $1.5 million.
In 2009, the diocese reopened the bankruptcy case after 26 new claims of abuse surfaced, many related to a residential facility called Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. The current allegations, concerning abuse that supposedly occurred decades ago, were made against the program’s longtime director Fr. Joseph Weitensteiner, a diocesan priest who has denied the allegations.
The facility, which opened in 1956, no longer has ties to the diocese.
The new claims threatened to drain a $1 million fund that had been set aside after the bankruptcy settlement to cover future claims against the diocese. The bishop said in his letter that 22 parishes in Spokane County “stepped forward on behalf of all the parishes in the diocese to offer their parish properties as collateral to assure that awards exceeding this $1 million amount would be paid.”
But as this fund depleted, foreclosure action on these properties became “imminent,” the bishop said, adding that future claims were “draining what little resources we needed to operate.”
Just a few months after taking over the helm of the Spokane Diocese, Bishop Cupich, the immediate past chairman of the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, initiated a mediation process for the diocese and abuse victims led by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene, Ore.
The bishop said in his letter that he viewed mediation as a way to respond to the escalating legal fees, threats of foreclosure, compensation for settlements and possible future claims.
Hogan, who also mediated in the bankruptcy settlement case for the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., in 2007, said the agreed upon settlement with the Spokane Diocese and abuse victims did not come easily.
He said the diocese was “not wealthy” and was facing possible exorbitant costs while the plaintiff’s stories were “pretty aggressive.”
At first, he told CNS, both sides “kept their cards close to their chests” but gradually during the year and a half of meetings, they developed a mutual understanding and worked toward cooperation.
Bishop Cupich said he learned a great deal from the mediation sessions primarily from listening to the perspective of the other side.
The specific settlement amounts awarded in the Morning Star cases were not publicly released, according to The Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s daily newspaper, which said the facility and insurance companies had contributed to a fund to settle the cases.
Bishop Cupich said the diocese is “still sobered” by the window given in its 2007 bankruptcy settlement that it would compensate claims until 2016.
Hogan, who will review any future claims made against the diocese, noted that valid claims rarely appear at the end of the set time frame.
Throughout the mediation process, the bishop urged diocesan Catholics to pray for the success of the process and continually sent updates letting them know what was happening.
He has asked diocesan parishes to celebrate a Mass of thanksgiving Aug. 15 for the mediation’s success. He said the outcome has given the church the chance of “making a fresh start and taking up the task of promoting all the good that belongs to the Gospel and our Catholic tradition.”
He stressed that the church can “never forget the harm done to children who deserved better from the church and her ministers” and said it “will not waiver in staying vigilant and making sure that our churches and schools remain safe environments for our young people.”