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Monday, May 21 2007 @ 01:42 AM CDT

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Sex abuse scandal means Religious Righters in Washington state must raise millions for victims

SPOKANE, Washington: In Roman Catholic parishes around Spokane these days, sermons on the teachings of Jesus are mixed with urgent pleas for money to pay people who were sexually abused by clergy decades ago.

Priests sometimes evoke the parable of the good Samaritan — who stopped to help a man who had been beaten and robbed when others ignored him — as they wage a campaign to overcome the financial fallout from clergy sex abuse in the bankrupt Spokane Diocese.

"I've been telling them the focus here is on the children who were hurt and doing what we can to bring them some sort of compensation, some sort of healing," said the Rev. Edgar Borchardt, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the college and farm town of Pullman, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Spokane

A bankruptcy reorganization plan approved last month commits the diocese to pay $48 million (€35.4 million) — including $10 million (€7.4 million) from 82 parishes — to settle as many as 177 old claims of sexual abuse.

That $10 million (€7.4 million) is roughly what the diocese's 95,000 parishioners — who are spread across 13 counties in Eastern Washington — normally put in the collection plate in a year.

Home to Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the diocese is the smallest and poorest of five nationwide that sought bankruptcy protection against clergy sex abuse lawsuits; the others are San Diego; Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Oregon; and Tucson, Arizona.

Skylstad is raising an additional $6 million (€4.4 million) toward the bankruptcy settlement, and Catholic agencies, such as cemeteries, children's homes and charities, are being asked to contribute $6.5 million (€4.8 million). The bankruptcy was filed under a law allowing people to reorganize their finances rather than liquidate all assets.

Over the next few weeks, parish priests will try to sell the settlement to parishioners, with individual priests deciding how to make the pitch, said Bob Hailey, an official of a grass-roots campaign to help parishes raise their share.

Borchardt's church began its campaign in February, ahead of other parishes. The congregation's 350 families already have raised — in cash and pledges — about 80 percent of the $250,000 (€184,175) the parish's expected contribution, he said.

Some parishioners are angry at Skylstad for taking the diocese into bankruptcy, while others balk at paying lawyers' fees. Still others question why they should pay for priests who molested children decades ago in other parishes, Borchardt said.

"The good Samaritan was not at all responsible for the problem, but he was the one who took care of the problem," Borchardt said. "We try to keep the focus on the healing of those who survived the abuse."

The Rev. Mike Savelesky, co-chairman of the Association of Parishes, a group of pastors and laity formed to protect the assets of individual parishes, told his parishioners their church's future may rest on the success of the campaign.

Savelesky is pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a large church and one of four Spokane-area parishes being used as collateral to secure loans for the diocese. It is also the former home of ex-priest Patrick O'Donnell, who admitted to molesting dozens of young boys.

Skylstad shared a parish residence in the early 1970s with O'Donnell, and victims' groups accused him of covering up knowledge of O'Donell's misdeeds.

A woman also accused Skylstad of sexually abusing her in the 1960s. The bishop denied the claim, saying he has never broken his vow of chastity and adding a private investigator hired by his lawyer found no proof to back the claim. Because the names and amounts being paid to victims are sealed by court order, it is not known if the woman is among those receiving settlements.

The diocese's priests must persuade parishioners that the amounts they must raise are not punitive, but are the right thing to do. "No one is punishing us or blaming us for something we did not do, but the love of Christ bids us reach out in compassion and healing love to those who have been abused," Savelesky wrote his parishioners.

If $47 million (€34.6 million) of the $48 million (€35.4 million) is not turned over to a bankruptcy trustee by Dec. 31, parishes will have to take out loans to make up the shortfall.

"What I'm hoping is, people realize this is not a campaign we can afford to fail," Hailey said. "We will rely on all parishioners to share a part of the burden."

The reorganization plan calls for Skylstad and the diocese to raise nearly $18 million (€13.3 million) in addition to the parishes' contributions. Insurance settlements will contribute about $20 million (€14.7 million).

While some parishioners see the settlement as a just way to help victims of abuse, others have complained its confidentiality wording won't allow parishioners to audit possibly false claims or learn more about priests who may have molested children. Four leading Catholics vowed they would not contribute "one dime" because the settlement was not subject to a vote of parishioners.

The reorganization plan will pay victims from $15,000 (€11,050) to $1.5 million (€1.1 million) each, depending on the severity of the molestation or rape. A former federal law official will hear claims and decide how much each person receives.

The sex abuse cases nationwide have cost the Catholic Church about $1.5 billion (€1.1 billion) since 1950, according to figures from studies by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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