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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
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 ordeals.

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 as insensitive.

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 nationwide.

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 newsletters.

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


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests