Oregon Judge's Order Risks State Interference in Running Church

By Wayne Laugesen
National Catholic Register
February 23 - March 1, 2003

BEND, Ore. - If a Portland lawyer gets his way, the Diocese of Baker, Ore., will be ordered to pay some $80 million to 21 people who claim they were sexually abused between 20 and 40 years ago.

To make sure Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker would be able to pay such a sum, attorney David Slader convinced a judge on Feb. 3 to preclude the diocese from distributing the deeds of 50 Church properties to the parish communities that use them.

Diocesan officials said Slader is asking for so much money that if every diocesan asset were sold - every church, cemetery, building, chalice and pew - the diocese would still be tens of millions short of paying an $80 million judgment.

Moreover, diocese officials said the judge's order is precluding Bishop Vasa from obeying Church law regarding asset ownership, raising an issue of state interference with his ability to freely exercise his religious obligations and beliefs.

"My motive is to bring justice to this situation," Slader said of his success in keeping Bishop Vasa from transferring titles. "When we get a judgment and the bishop is faced with the prospect of the sheriff padlocking churches and selling them at auction on the courthouse steps, that's leverage.

"We don't think it will get to that. Each diocese has a network of ways to borrow money - they can borrow it from another diocese or from the Vatican. If the assets are at stake, the bishop will find the money. If he has no assets, he'll have no motivation to find the money."

Slader said he sought the court order because Bishop Vasa was working to transfer titles to parish property that has been held by the diocese since it was established 100 years ago. He charges the bishop with transferring titles in direct re-sponse to a possible judgment.

"It's blatantly obvious that Bishop Vasa is transferring ownership to the parishes so that when we get a judgment against the diocese the diocese will own nothing," Slader said. "It's calculated, transparent, unlawful and devious."

Not true, said Father James Logan, chancellor of the Diocese of Baker.

Father Logan, who is a canon lawyer, said it's a documented fact that Bishop Vasa expressed interest in transferring property deeds to individual parishes three years ago, when he was first assigned to the diocese. That was about two years before any lawsuits were filed or spoken of in connection with sexual-abuse allegations from the past.

'Juridical Person'

Bishop Vasa came to the Baker Diocese from the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., where parish property belongs to the parish. It's typical in the western United States for parish properties to be titled to the diocese, while in the Midwest and the eastern United States, most Church property is titled to the parishes that use it.

Early in the 20th century, the Holy See expressed to American bishops its disapproval of the "corporation sole" model of property organization - the model used by Baker - in which bishops hold title to parish property.

The Vatican's objections were grounded in a canon that dictates proper ownership of Church property.

"Under the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff, ownership of goods belongs to that juridical person which has lawfully acquired them legitimately," the canon said.

"The juridical person in this case is the individual parish that uses the property," Father Logan said. "The bishop is not engaged in the shell game [Slader is] alleging. He is trying to bring legal clarity to the ownership of the properties, and the bishop is under a religious obligation to carry out the laws of the Church. He came here from a diocese that was following canon law regarding Church assets, and it was one of his first orders of business to incorporate the same system here."

Nonsense, Slader countered. He said most dioceses that use the corporation sole structure of asset ownership have kept it in place for 100 years, despite the Holy See's turn-of-the-century objection.

"This system has been maintained in the Baker Diocese and about 50 other dioceses in the United States because it gives the bishop full control," Slader said. "Now bishops are conveniently abandoning the corporation sole because it exposes the assets to the claims of creditors, such as my clients."

Assets owned by a parish - rather than a diocese - are only in danger if a lawsuit is initiated against the parish. Most lawsuits involving alleged sexual abuse by priests are filed against the diocese, because civil law views priests as employees of the diocese they work in.

'Church-State Conflicts'

The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, published by the Canon Law Society of America, warns that the corporation sole model of asset ownership gives rise to "church-state conflicts." It explains that the civil law structure of a community might be incompatible with canon law.

The Baker Diocese dilemma exemplifies the conflict because the judge's order, while in force, will preclude the bishop from obeying canon law.

"I don't give a [expletive] about canon law," Slader said. "Oregon is not a canon law jurisdiction."

None of the allegations Slader is suing for involve priests who remain in public ministry, and the most recent allegations are more than 20 years old. In Oregon, a sexual abuse victim can sue within three years of coming to a realization that past abuse was harmful.

Slader, who is Jewish, said he has no ax to grind with the Catholic Church.

"My motive is to bring justice to this situation and to change this institution, one diocese at a time," he said. "While I have no animosity toward the Catholic Church, I have absolutely no respect for the way the institution has dealt with the pedophile issue."

Father Logan declined to comment on what he believes might be Slader's true motive for filing a lawsuit that seeks more money than the entire diocese is worth.

Wayne Laugesen writesfrom Boulder, Colorado


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