Skylstad: Diocese Can Raise $35 Million for Settlements

By Nicholas K. Geranios
KGW [Spokane WA]
July 12, 2006

[See Skylstad's letter and the diocese's description of the original offer: Diocese Makes $45.75 Million Settlement Offer to 75 Victims, by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Inland Register (offer made 2/1/06; article published 2/23/06)

The Catholic Diocese of Spokane can raise at least $35 million to divide among victims of sex abuse by priests, and may have to ask parishioners to contribute if more money is needed, Bishop William Skylstad said in his latest letter to church members.

But a lawyer for sex abuse victims said $35 million will not be nearly enough to settle the dozens of lawsuits filed against the diocese.

"In my opinion, he is not in the ballpark," said Duane Rasmussan, attorney for about one third of the victims. "It'll take his original offer, plus."

Skylstad, who is head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had originally offered a $45 million settlement to 75 victims, but a federal bankruptcy judge rejected the offer because it did not deal with all the identified victims. There may be 60 to 70 additional victims, lawyers for both sides have said.

"I think the victims are willing to continue on with the struggle," Rasmussan added.

The two sides participated in one day of settlement talks last Friday in Reno, Nev., and more talks are scheduled for the week of Aug. 21 in Spokane. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams has told participants not to disclose the content of the talks.

Skylstad's letter, which appeared last week in the diocese's Inland Register newspaper, said the diocese will have just over $20 million from its insurance carriers to offer to victims. The diocese also has about $8 million in assets, much of it real estate that can be sold.

Skylstad also estimated that about $7 million can be raised from other Catholic organizations.

"If any additional monies are needed for the final settlement, I will have to ask for the financial support of the parishioners," Skylstad wrote. "At this point in time, that amount is unknown, although there is certainly a limit to what parishes can contribute to a feasible final plan."

He did not outline precisely how the earlier offer of $45 million would have been funded, although he mentioned insurance settlements and property sales.

Skylstad said his primary concern remains the victims.

"They have been hurt," Skylstad wrote. "As we travel this very expensive journey, I hope no one in our diocese will blame the victims."

He added that the Catholic Church in Eastern Washington must continue its mission, and must ensure that sex abuse does not happen again.

A recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Justin L. Quackenbush, who held that individual churches and schools were owned by the parishes and cannot be sold by the bishop to raise money, was a key development, Skylstad said.

"Judge Quackenbush's ruling was not only helpful to us, but also sends a good message to the whole country as to how we look at parish property in the Catholic Church," Skylstad said.

However, the question of how parish assets might be used in the case remains open.

"It is very clear that when all is completed, we will have much more limited assets with which to support ministry in the Church," Skylstad wrote. "But our mission will continue."

Dozens of claims of sexual abuse by priests led the diocese to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in December 2004. In its bankruptcy petition, the diocese listed assets of $11 million against liabilities of at least $81.3 million, most from sex abuse claims.

The diocese serves about 90,000 Catholics in 82 parishes in 13 Eastern Washington counties.


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