With many observers anticipating a bankruptcy filing by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis sometime tomorrow or early next week, I thought it worthwhile to dust off some comments that I posted back in November regarding the Archdiocese's precarious financial situation. 

I have no doubt, no doubt, that when the Archdiocese officially declares that it does not have sufficient resources to meet its obligations we will see a press release attributing the decision to the volume of claims filed or expected to be filed under the Minnesota Child Victims Act, as well as to the Archdiocese's oft stated but frankly implausible aim of wanting to find 'fair solution to all victim claims'. 


When, in the late fall of 2014, the Archdiocese released audited financial reports showing a more than $9 million operating deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014, the precarious financial position of the Archdiocese was already being linked to the so-called 'civil window' for the introduction of 'old' cases involving acts of sexual abuse of minors. I disagreed, and instead attributed the financial crisis to poor management and a fundamental failure of Archdiocesan leadership to govern the diocese in accord with its mission. I maintain that position.

For, it is important to remember that the passage of the Child Victims Act did not create the financial distress that is pushing the Archdiocese to bankruptcy. All the Child Victims Act did was create a window during which victims of sexual abuse could present civil cases that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations. Permitting someone to introduce a case is not the same as guaranteeing that person a positive verdict, or even a monetary one. 

The 'number of cases' the Archdiocese is facing is also not the result of the Child Victims Act, it is the result of decades of abuse perpetrated by clergy, often under circumstances in which the Archdiocese knew of or could have reasonably assumed the likelihood of such abuse occurring. For proof of this statement, I need only refer you to the Archdiocese's own website and its growing list of 'Individuals with substantiated claims against them of sexual abuse of a minor within the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis'. 

In addition, over the last two decades the Archdiocese further complicated its position by its aggressive and litigious response to claims for compensation by victims. Since at least the Kapoun trials in the early 1990's, the Archdiocese has aggressively defended itself against such liability claims, even in cases where it was evident that the abuse had occurred (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/mn-court-of-appeals/1112778.html). And, it has now been acknowledged that it employed a litigation strategy designed to make potential claimants fearful of pressing their claims. In other words, the Archdiocese taxed the victims with the costs of its legal fees. This strategy was first used in the Kapoun trial in the 1990s, but was used again as recently as 2010.

These actions were taken despite the Catholic Church's explicit support for for the rights and needs of victims found in documents like ‘Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice’, which is a policy statement issued on November 15, 2000, by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Archdiocese also often pursued ends in court that are contrary to Catholic teaching, such as forcing victims to undergo psychological testing and other procedures which the Church believes cannot be compelled because of the natural dignity of all persons.

In this context, the Child Victims Act, which the Archdiocese spent more than ten years and nearly a million dollars opposing, can be seen as merely leveling the playing field for a category of victims that had been denied justice by a powerful organization committed to winning in court using all means available- fair or foul. For, the Archdiocese had other options available to it besides litigation and lobbying. It could have avoided its present predicament by doing as other dioceses did and voluntarily agreeing to mediate or arbitrate cases that fell outside of the statute of limitations (see, for example, the Diocese of Springfieldprior to October 2014. This was, of course, the position advised by Mark Chopko and the USCCB, which encouraged dioceses to consider mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution as early as 2005.   

I anticipate that the coming weeks, months, and years will be unpleasant ones for Catholics in this Archdiocese. The status of some of our most cherished institutions will likely be challenged. We will need, but are unlikely to receive, strong moral leadership. In its absence, I hope that the average Catholic in the pew will be willing and able to embrace the fact that those who we will hear spoken of as 'claimants' are, in fact, individuals who once sat in the very same pews where we sit now. Rather than blaming them for the current state of affairs, we must endeavor to accept the moral obligation to see that they are compensated for the harm that they suffered.
 


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    Author

    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

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