Portland Diocese Seeks Abuse-Claims Deadline
The Portland Archdiocese says a cutoff date is a vital bankruptcy
step; plaintiffs' lawyers call it insensitive
Friday, August 20, 2004
NANCY HAUGHT and JEFF MANNING
The Portland Oregonian
In a bid to learn who has undisclosed plans to sue, the Archdiocese
of Portland has proposed a Dec. 31, 2004, deadline for victims
of sexual abuse to name themselves and provide details of their
In papers filed Thursday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the archdiocese
proposed a two-page "tort proof of claim" form.
The archdiocese, which serves Western Oregon Catholics, also
outlined a plan to advertise the deadline in regional and
national news media.
A church official and a lawyer characterized it as a necessary
step to move the bankruptcy proceedings forward. Lawyers for
victims roundly condemned the proposed form and media campaign
The archdiocese sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last
month in an effort to shield some of its assets from dozens
of lawsuits that have already been filed. It is the first
Catholic diocese to file for bankruptcy because of clergy
abuse claims, and the Portland case is being closely watched
The norm in bankruptcy proceedings is to compile a list of
those with claims against the debtor. But in many situations,
the claims are not as emotionally sensitive as those involving
sexual abuse. The proposed form asks for a claimant's name
and address, dates and places of the abuse, the name of the
abuser, descriptions of the abuse and the total amount of
money the claimant seeks. It also seeks names of witnesses,
confidants, therapists and lawyers.
"It is clearly intimidating," said David Slader,
an attorney who has represented dozens of priest abuse plaintiffs.
"Most abuse survivors are ultimately willing to publicly
disclose their names, but that's a gradual process.
"To expect someone to suddenly put their name on the
form, and all the details of their abuse, is absurd,"
he said. "There is no question that this is a very intimidating
process that very few survivors are likely to take advantage
of. No doubt that played a part in the calculation of the
archdiocese, in designing the form the way they have."
Bud Bunce, communications director for the archdiocese, said
"The archdiocese is trying to find all other possible
claims that might be against the church." The proposed
form is "a working document," he said, one that
will be adjusted after consultations with other attorneys
in the bankruptcy proceeding. It must be approved by Bankruptcy
Judge Elizabeth Perris.
Slader says he expects to approach the court to propose a
"safe way" for claimants to reveal abuse, "a
way that is not inherently coercive and intimidating. This
is not a meaningful way to reach out to abuse survivors."
Bill Crane, coordinator of Oregon SNAP, Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests, objects to the Dec. 31 deadline
and the plan to advertise that claims must be filed by 5 p.m.
Pacific Standard Time on that date.
"They want to set a timeline. You can't do that. Setting
a bar causes people to panic. . . . It's a very delicate,
touchy process" to file an abuse claim, he says. Telling
one's spouse, filling out a form, consulting an attorney,
all take courage and time, he said. To do so in a span of
four months is "ridiculous, ludicrous," he said.
Bunce said that the proposed deadline is about a month longer
than one suggested by bankruptcy rules. "Once a bankruptcy
is filed, they have certain deadlines," he said. "We're
simply proposing a little longer deadline to get all the tort
claims that we can."
The plans submitted by the archdiocese Thursday also call
for advertising in 17 newspapers and five archdiocese publications
along the West Coast starting in September, and some national
publications. The archdiocese also would put up a Web site
and place ads in victims' Web sites, post notices in all of
its churches and advertise in Catholic high school alumni
Thomas Stilley, a Portland lawyer representing the archdiocese,
said getting a firm idea of the number and types of claims
is crucial to moving the bankruptcy forward. "We need
to get everybody in here and see if we can get these things
resolved," he said.
Al Kennedy, a Portland lawyer representing several plaintiffs,
said the media plan is too limited and the proposed deadline
of Dec. 31 is too soon.
Questions of how best to notify potential plaintiffs and
the procedure to handle those claims "are some of the
most important issues in this case as it will set a precedent
nationally," Kennedy said.
The ad does not mince words. "If you were abused or
suffered any injury by a priest or other person working in
ministry for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon or for
a Catholic parish school of the Archdiocese you must act now
to preserve your rights."
Copyright 2004 Oregon Live