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Abuse: The Costs Go Higher

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 23, 2007

We all thought we knew the full price of the sex abuse scandal: The psychological and emotional distress of the victims, the suffering of priests tainted (justly and unjustly) by the scandal, the loss of ecclesial credibility, and the monumental financial cost to the faithful from settlements now in the neighborhood of one billion dollars. But there are other costs as well.

Legal Costs?

One such cost is legal. The Associated Press reports that the lawyers representing the Archdiocese of Portland (Oregon) have presented a bill for $18 million for a bankruptcy settlement of just over $100 million. If we note (without raised eyebrows) that one-third of this bill was for fees paid by the attorneys to others, this still leaves $12 million. At an hourly rate of, say, $250, this divides out to 48,000 hours of work by the lawyers representing the diocese, or 6,000 normal work days, or 24 normal work years. Clearly, then, we are talking about something other than labor. One senses that there is some sort of a percentage involved, some piece of the action. This may represent more than a material cost to the Archdiocese. One can only speculate as to the spiritual cost for those who profited.

But just for a change let’s focus instead on the personal cost to those we most often like to bash: the bishops. I’ve commented elsewhere on how Catholic dioceses are treated differently from other organizations accused of sex abuse. (See Fleecing the Catholic Church and The New Despoliation.) In American Constitutional terms, the bishops face two injustices: (1) Cruel and unusual punishment (please, if you want to write me—again—that the Church has it coming, don’t); (2) Punishment of those who are not guilty for the crimes of those who are. Moreover, some very specific legal and moral issues were brought to light in a forceful study done by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver in early 2006 entitled Suing the Church. Among other things, Chaput reported how state after state had revised the statutes of limitations for civil laws precisely in order to punish the Catholic Church and profit from her financially for crimes long past.

The Cost of Being a Bishop

In May of 2006, this study ended up on the desk of Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny, who had been appointed in 1997, long after abuse had peaked and subsided. Archbishop Vlazny had just guided his diocese through the afore-mentioned bankruptcy settlement, which was caused by a rising tide of victim claims. The claims were first made in 2000 but generally referred to incidents that occurred decades earlier. In his column in the May 19, 2006 issue of the Catholic Sentinel, Vlazny commented on his reaction to Chaput’s study. His column is remarkably frank, and it voices concerns that must be felt by every bishop who is forced to handle these cases. For this reason, I’m going to excerpt a lengthy sequence of passages:

In my former diocese, lawsuits had been filed claiming sexual abuse by a priest…. Little by little…we managed to work through all kinds of confrontations, challenges and deeply distressing situations. The demands for compensation and punishment then were excessive as they remain today, but no one knew for certain the worth of such claims….

”Liberation” came in October of 1997 when I was appointed the 10th Archbishop of Portland. For two years no similar claims came to my desk. But it all ended abruptly in early 2000 when 25 claims surfaced alleging abuse by one of our priests in previous decades, dating all the way back to the 1950s. It was a high-profile event for the Oregon media, and we were brought to our knees both in terms of the financial and non-monetary demands. I apologized. We prayed. Policies were revised and improved….

Over the years, the claims have mounted, so many that eventually we reached the point where we were no longer able to meet the demands. Insurance carriers had abandoned us. The media, both secular and Catholic, became highly critical. Many of our own people vented their frustration and rage and some even walked away. I am regularly chided by parishioners. Fortunately, I still remember days of yore when I wasn’t a bishop and therefore was not a bête noir. All the wise pundits, both secular and Catholic, continue to point out the inadequacies of those of us who serve the church as bishops.

But then early this month, I received copies of some articles that made me begin to wonder. Have I been duped? Have we as a church been unfairly pilloried? Like my brother priests, I didn’t answer the call to ordained ministry because I wanted to hurt or offend people. Because I am weak and sinful, I certainly have that capacity. Consequently, I try hard to be sensitive to those who bring the claims against the church, and I have wanted to treat them with compassion and fairness….

Just Imagine

Put aside your anger at “those bishops” for a moment and instead imagine yourself one of them. You have taken over a new diocese and are answering for problems that didn’t occur on your watch. Imagine that you have acted as generously as possible with victims because you believed this the right thing to do. But the claims have become more than you can handle, so you have filed for bankruptcy partly to ensure that every victim will be treated as fairly as possible. Imagine that you have been forced to divert hundreds of millions of dollars away from the mission you were ordained and consecrated to carry out.

And now imagine that you have begun to suspect, without in any way exonerating the guilty or underestimating the pain of true victims, that the enormously high cost of the abuse scandal was not caused by the sins of the clergy alone. You suspect that this cost was driven far higher by the prejudices and sins of American reporters, legislators, lawyers and judges all determined to maximize both the damage to the Church and the chance for gain among a significant number of dubious victims and their representatives.

Imagine that you now suspect your entire concept of “doing the right thing” was seriously flawed. As Bishop Vlazny so poignantly expressed it, imagine that you have been duped.

Finally, imagine again that you are back to being yourself. You see the crisis and are angry at the bishops. Perhaps you have other reasons to be angry as well. Now imagine further that you don't sympathize at all with your bishop's suffering, and that you seldom or never pray for him. Imagine, in fact, that he has become a non-person to you, one of them.

Well and good. In effect, you have demonized him, and you no longer need to merely imagine that you've been duped.

[For the complete text of Archbishop Vlazney’s column, see Clergy Abuse Cases Present Challenges for Church Leaders.]

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