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CURRENT ISSUE:  September 5, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 15Oakland, CA

Abuse settlement of $56 million in Oakland Diocese

Pledging to continue his commitment to victims of clergy sex abuse, Bishop Allen Vigneron announced last month that the Oakland Diocese had reached a global settlement of the 56 lawsuits filed against it for sexual misconduct of minors by 13 priests.
A total of $56,358,000 will be paid, with $25,318,000 coming from the diocese and the remainder from its insurers. The $25 million includes the April 13 jury settlement in the case of two brothers who charged they were molested by a priest in Antioch two decades ago.

“It is my heartfelt hope that reaching this resolution will help victim-survivors move forward ever more securely along the path of healing,” said Bishop Vigneron when the settlement was announced Aug. 5. “I, together with all the priests of the Roman Catholic community in the East Bay, will, in the months and years ahead, do whatever is in our power to be of assistance in this regard.”

The diocese will obtain a three-year loan to cover its portion of the settlement. Michael Canizzaro, the diocese’s chief financial officer, said he hopes those funds will be available to the victims before the end of the year.

The diocese plans to sell some of its undeveloped land to pay off the loan, but no parish properties or other assets will be touched, Canizzaro said. Funds raised for other specific purposes, including those for the Cathedral of Christ the Light and the Bishop’s Annual Appeal, will not be used to settle the lawsuits.

Canizzaro, acting on advice from the Diocesan Finance Council, said the diocese will proceed with “an orderly liquidation of properties necessary to pay off the loan.” Interest on the loan will be absorbed by the diocesan budget and could result in a reduction in services, he said.

He emphasized that the diocese is not at risk of bankruptcy. The Archdiocese of Portland and the dioceses of Spokane and Tucson have all filed bankruptcy because of massive financial judgments made against them.

A bankruptcy judge has ruled in favor of Tucson’s plan to make $22.2 million available to 77 claimants, but Spokane’s efforts to emerge from bankruptcy stalled last month when another bankruptcy judge said that churches, parochial schools and other assets belonging to the Spokane Diocese could be liquidated if necessary to settle 58 lawsuits. A spokesperson for Spokane said the diocese intends to appeal that ruling.

Bishop Vigneron said the Oakland Diocese “will not walk away from the whole issue” of clergy sexual abuse and pledged continual pastoral care to all victims, both those who filed suits and those who did not.

He will continue to lead apology services at parishes where abuse took place, a gesture he began shortly after assuming leadership of the diocese on Oct. 1, 2003. His predecessor, Bishop John Cummins, held an apology service on March 25, 2000, possibly the first bishop in the U.S. to do so.

Sister Barbara Flannery, diocesan chancellor and liaison to abuse survivors, said there will be an apology service this spring for those abused by priests and Brothers belonging to religious orders while they were serving in high schools and parishes in the diocese. Although the diocese did not have direct responsibility for these men, who are accountable to the superiors of their religious orders, Bishop Vigneron wants to offer a formal apology to the victims, Sister Flannery said.

In another effort to help survivors heal, the diocese continues to offer a support group on the first Saturday of each month at Holy Names University. A therapist with pastoral and clinical expertise guides the group. The meetings are confidential and new participants are welcome at any time, Sister Flannery said. Information is available atwww.oakdiocese.org/survivors or by calling Sister Flannery at 510-267-8334.

Both Bishop Vigneron and Sister Flannery reiterated the importance of the diocesan Safe Environment Program that trains clergy, church workers and volunteers in ways to prevent abuse and how to identify and report possible instances of abuse. This training is one of several steps required by the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in 2002.

Other requirements of the Charter include:
• A “zero tolerance” policy for clergy, church workers and volunteers. No one with a credible complaint of sexual abuse of minors will be permitted to remain in ministry.
• Mandatory reporting to law enforcement of any accusation of sexual abuse of a minor.
• An annual compliance audit to insure that diocesan policies and practices meet or exceed the standards established in the Charter and its accompanying Essential Norms.
• An independent review board to evaluate complaints and advise the bishop on an accused person’s fitness for ministry.
• Enhanced screening and background checks of priests and other ministerial workers who transfer into the diocese.
• A fingerprint check of all diocesan clergy, church workers and volunteers in positions that bring them into contact with children.

The $56 million settlement in the Oakland Diocese was the fourth major one in California since the state enacted a one-year window in 2003 during which victims of childhood sexual abuse could file claims previously barred by the statute of limitations. About 800 claims against the Church were filed statewide

In June, the Diocese of Sacramento agreed to pay $35 million to settle 34 lawsuits and the San Francisco Archdiocese and its insurers reached a $21.5 million settlement with 15 plaintiffs who claimed they were molested by five priests. In July the archdiocese settled with 12 people allegedly molested by a priest during the 1970s for a total of $16 million. These settlements represent about half the cases filed against San Francisco.

Last January, the Diocese of Orange finalized an agreement under which 90 victims received a total of $100 million. The Diocese of Santa Rosa settled its eight cases involving three priests for $7.3 million on June 29.

No settlement is expected soon in the more than 550 lawsuits filed against the Los Angeles Archdiocese, according to a report published last month in the archdiocesan newspaper.

The Aug. 2 Los Angeles progress report said that “we are certain that we have adequate insurance coverage to reach a fair and proportionate settlement with all victims” but did not offer a specific amount.

Part of the delay in reaching a settlement involves a legal dispute concerning archdiocesan plans to make public its documents about accused priests. A lawyer for some of the priests named in the files has argued that the documents contain private information about his clients that should not be made public.


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