IF ANYTHING, history has proven the skeptics right. What’s happening in Boston fits a pattern that has played out in every major instance of sexual abuse by priests across the country: multiple lawsuits get filed; diocesan leaders plead poverty; some even threaten to go bust. Yet in the end, after much legal wrangling and public drama, Church leaders always manage to settle the suits and carry on. Not one of the 194 Catholic dioceses in the United States has ever declared bankruptcy.
Take, for example, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which was hit hard by 187 lawsuits alleging clergy sexual abuse in the 1990s. The suits, first filed in 1992, involved close to 200 victims and 15 priests, including notorious pedophiles James Porter and Jason Siegler. By 2000, the archdiocese had settled all the cases for some $30 million — but not before threatening to collapse. Stephen Tinkler, the Albuquerque lawyer who represented many of the victims, recalls that Church officials "cried ‘poor boy’" to convince him and his colleagues to lower their settlement demands. To prove its point, the Santa Fe archdiocese disclosed its books — only to expose assets of more than $100 million in real estate. "When we called them on this," Tinkler remembers, "their response was, ‘We don’t own all that real estate; the parishes do,’" even though the property titles were filed under the archdiocese’s name.
Needless to say, Church officials never did declare bankruptcy. Rather, they tottered on the edge and took some dramatic steps to save the institution. They sold off parcels of undeveloped land. They took up a special "victim’s counseling" collection. And they turned toward other dioceses for monetary help. "At the time," says Patrick Schiltz, a Minneapolis attorney who’s defended the Catholic Church and others in 500 cases of clergy sex abuse and who’s familiar with the Santa Fe suits, "the other dioceses thought that Santa Fe was the anomaly." Simply put, they thought no diocese would face such a massive scandal again.
Similarly, the Diocese of Dallas suffered a tough blow back in 1997, when a jury awarded 11 victims $119.6 million after finding it negligent in supervising former priest and convicted molester Rudy Kos. The diocese, according to Sylvia Demarest, who represented the victims, instantly complained that the judgment — the largest in a clergy sex-abuse suit ever — would cripple the Church. It even obtained permission from the Vatican to file for bankruptcy. With such a prospect imminent, Demarest agreed to settle the cases for $31.5 million. But for all their talk of fiscal turmoil, diocesan officials managed to pay for the settlement primarily through insurance, which handed over $20 million. They made up the rest by selling off real estate, including a school that they’d planned to sell anyway. When all was said and done, as Demarest rather facetiously puts it, "The Dallas diocese really lucked out." All it took to get out of the Kos mess was the filing of an insurance claim and the sale of minor property.
To be sure, the crisis roiling the Boston archdiocese differs from what happened in Santa Fe and Dallas in several crucial ways. Here, far more victims have come forward. Far more priests have faced allegations. And far more bishops have been implicated in the cover-up. The scandal’s size and scope has soared off the charts. And this makes the risk that the Boston archdiocese could become the first US diocese to go bankrupt quite real. Secretly, some attorneys and clergy sex-abuse experts hope that happens. Says Demarest, "Perhaps bankruptcy is appropriate. The Boston archdiocese needs to be punished severely."
Wishful thinking aside, though, that outcome seems unlikely. On the one hand, bankruptcy presents an attractive option because the archdiocese could get its debts erased while managing the torrent of suits pending against it. On the other hand, it comes with consequences. For example, Church leaders would have to open their books to public scrutiny, which would hamper their authority. Furthermore, bankruptcy must be weighed against its effects on the faithful. Parishioners are already upset at Law and his underlings for shielding child molesters for years. Were they to respond to the mounting lawsuits by going bust, they might fan the public outcry further. "The Church is different from Enron," points out Tom Bean, a prominent bankruptcy lawyer in Boston. "It’s an organization that asserts a certain moral authority. Getting out of paying one’s debts could be seen as inconsistent with that."
At any rate, the prospect of bankruptcy has yet to discourage victims’ attorneys. "Frankly," says Newman, "I’m not concerned about it." He and his partner MacLeish figure that, based on their analysis, the Church has enough insurance coverage in primary and secondary policies to resolve the bulk of the outstanding cases. If insurers move to challenge these claims, as is reportedly happening, the archdiocese can fall back on the millions of dollars in non-mission-related real estate catalogued by the Herald.
Not even the Geoghan victims believe the archdiocese will go belly up, despite their agreement to settle for a reduced amount last month. In many ways, they were bullied into accepting what Garabedian calls "a drop in the bucket." Throughout the protracted legal battle, they’d grown utterly disillusioned by the archdiocese, which offered them no spiritual counseling, no formal apology, and no invitation to come back to the Catholic Church. "My clients realized the archdiocese doesn’t care about them," says Garabedian, who represents 19 new Geoghan victims, as well as dozens more molested by other priests. They settled, in short, to get on with their lives. "Money," he says, "means more to the Church than the victims do."
SO WHAT DOES the scandal mean for the Church’s future? There’s no question that the archdiocese has sufficient resources to cushion the blow of any judgment. Even so, it’s sure to suffer financial repercussions for years to come. Church advisers have estimated that it will cost up to $100 million to resolve all the pending lawsuits. With that kind of money at stake, the archdiocese will have to draw on lay people’s generosity. That is, lay people will have to pay for the misdeeds of their Church leaders. According to Schiltz, who’s associate dean at the University of St. Thomas Law School, in Minneapolis, clergy sex-abuse suits represent the only legal cases in which the people who pay for the misconduct had nothing to do with it. "The people in the pews pay for these suits," he says, "either by giving up more money or by watching the Church cut services."
Here, parishioners have refused to give for just this reason. The VOTF’s Post says the scandal has created a "moral dilemma" for Catholics who don’t want their money funneled into the hands of a cardinal who betrayed them. The situation seems to create a vicious circle. The more that instances of abuse and cover-up emerge, the angrier parishioners become. The angrier they become, the less they give in pledges. The less they give, the greater the financial strain on the Church. As one long-time observer bluntly states, "The Boston archdiocese is in deep shit all the way around."
At the same time, observers believe the archdiocese could reverse its fiscal misfortunes if only it took certain steps. As victims’ attorneys, rank-and-file Catholics, and clergy-sex-abuse experts see it, the declining financial spiral corresponds with a declining moral spiral. As Cardinal Law lost his credibility, he lost his ability to raise money. Were Law to boost that authority — by, say, heeding demands to step down — many parishioners would gladly send off checks to support the Church’s good works. Consider the VOTF push to raise money for Church programs. Members have donated $56,000 to the group’s Voice of Compassion-Boston Fund, which tries to bypass the archdiocese and give to programs covered by the Cardinal’s Appeal. VOTF has offered this money to the archdiocese — only to be rebuffed by the cardinal. Yet the group’s effort shows just how devoted Catholics are to their church. All they want is to see their spiritual leaders do right. "Once people see a change in the administration," Newman notes, "supporters will rally to the archdiocese’s side."
When asked about the future of the Boston archdiocese, Post, for one, predicts that it’ll be "a presence for years to come." If, that is, the archdiocese makes a genuine effort to heal the wounds caused by this scandal — if it changes leadership, reaches out to victims, accepts VOTF funds. Right now, Post says with a sigh, "those wounds are deep. They’re just not being healed."