Judge Rebukes San Diego Diocese
Attorneys and pastors threatened with contempt for
plan to shift funds in bankruptcy case
By Mark Sauer and Sandi Dolbee
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS
April 10, 2007
In a highly unusual move, a federal judge yesterday ordered attorneys
and pastors involved in the Diocese of San Diego's bankruptcy to
explain why they should not be sanctioned for attempting to shift
funds without authorization.
Judge Louise DeCarl Adler's sternly worded order states that Susan
Boswell of Tucson, Ariz., lead bankruptcy attorney for the Roman
Catholic diocese, and church officials appear to have conspired
with parishes to illegally create new bank accounts separate
from the diocese.
Adler also noted that the diocese's newly formed Organization of
Parishes misrepresented in a memo that she had authorized the 98
San Diego and Imperial county parishes to move their funds to new
The judge ordered Boswell, the Rev. Bruce Orsborn, the Rev. Michael
Gallagher and attorneys representing the Organization of Parishes
to appear before her tomorrow to show cause why you should
not be cited for contempt of court.
Orsborn, writing on behalf of the Organization of Parishes in a
March 29 memo, laid out for pastors a step-by-step plan to create
new bank accounts and said permission to transfer funds had been
granted by the judge. The organization was formed shortly after
the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Feb. 27.
Gallagher, writing to his congregation at Our Lady of Grace in
El Cajon, stated in a March 17 letter that the court ordered
that we establish a new tax identification number for every parish
account instead of using the diocesan tax identification number.
Adler's order makes clear she never authorized such transfers nor
ordered new tax numbers.
Also singled out in Adler's order were attorneys Jeffrey Davis
and Victor Vilaplana, who represent the Organization of Parishes.
Legal experts noted that Adler issued the order on her own. She
gave the diocese's attorneys until 5 p.m. today to respond.
Neither Boswell nor the two priests responded to requests for comment
However, Vilaplana acknowledged yesterday that Gallagher was wrong
to say the court ordered parishes to establish new tax identification
numbers, rather than continuing to use the diocese's tax number.
It (Gallagher's letter) does contain errors, Vilaplana
said. We have taken steps to correct it. This is not something
that the organization was in any way involved in, and we didn't
know about it until it was brought to our attention.
The attorney conceded Adler's action is unusual. Obviously,
the judge is somewhat troubled by something, Vilaplana said.
The judge wants to maintain the ability to decide who owns
all of this property.
Adler used the word conspired and the phrase misrepresenting
to others the nature and effect of orders of this court in
her five-page document.
The legal language in the judge's order barely conceals her anger,
said Michael O'Halloran, a San Diego attorney specializing in bankruptcy.
The rare action by the veteran jurist created a buzz at the courthouse
yesterday, he said.
As an attorney, you never want to see your name on such an
order, O'Halloran said. We all live in fear of this
kind of thing ever coming our way.
Should Adler find diocesan attorneys and officials in contempt
for conspiring to hide assets and misrepresenting facts to the court,
her sanctions cannot be punitive in nature, said Lynn LoPucki, a
UCLA law professor specializing in bankruptcy issues who has followed
the Roman Catholic sexual-abuse lawsuits nationwide.
The purpose is to coerce those held in contempt to do what
needs to be done to rectify the situation, LoPucki said.
Adler could imprison someone if necessary, which happened in one
California bankruptcy case a few years ago, LoPucki said, but
that is highly unlikely.
The judge could also compensate (creditors') attorneys for
fees incurred in dealing with this issue, he said.
The last paragraph of Adler's order suggests that sanctions could
include kicking Boswell off the case.
John Manly, an Orange County attorney representing 27 people suing
the San Diego Diocese for alleged sexual abuse by priests, said
he has never seen anything like Adler's contempt notice in nearly
20 years of practicing law.
The conduct by the San Diego Diocese stuns even those of
us who have been at this (clergy-abuse lawsuits) for 10 years,
There is a venom in the diocese's approach to not only deny
victims their day in court, but also any reasonable compensation
for what they have suffered, the attorney added.
Bishop Robert Brom has said the diocese filed for bankruptcy in
an effort to continue the church's ministry while fairly compensating
San Diego attorneys Irwin Zalkin and Andrea Leavitt, who together
represent 39 of the approximately 150 people suing the diocese for
alleged sexual abuse by priests in incidents dating back decades,
declined to comment in advance of tomorrow's hearing.
But Zalkin and Leavitt are among several plaintiffs' attorneys
who have challenged the diocese's financial statements since Feb.
27, when it became the fifth U.S. Roman Catholic diocese to file
for Chapter 11 protection in the face of numerous abuse lawsuits.
The attorneys, who filed the bulk of their cases in 2003, claim
diocesan officials have:
Wrongly listed $50 million from a Utah foundation for construction
of Mater Dei High School in Chula Vista as a loan rather than a
Made gifts of at least $1.5 million from the diocese to parishes.
Improperly pushed a $65 million sale of 14 acres at a closed Linda
Vista high school campus while contemplating bankruptcy.
Wrongly claimed the diocese does not own the $79 million Catholic
Cathedral High in Carmel Valley.
Mark Sauer: (619) 293-2227; [email protected]
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