Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Worse news from north

Portland, Aug. 02 ( - A US bankruptcy court judge in Oregon has certified 389,000 Catholic parishioners as defendants in a case brought by the Archdiocese of Portland.

In an extremely rare legal maneuver, Judge Elizabeth Perris accepted the suggestion that all Catholics in the archdiocese should be included as defendants, in order to settle the key issue in the bankruptcy proceedings: whether the assets of the parishes in Portland belong to the archdiocese or to the individual parishes and parishioners.

The Archdiocese of Portland filed for bankruptcy protection last July, in the face of hundreds of sex-abuse lawsuits. The Portland archdiocese was the first in the US to file a bankruptcy petition, in the face of hundreds of lawsuits brought by people who reported having been abused by Portland priests.

In its bankruptcy petition, the archdiocese claimed to face legal damages amounting to $400 million or more; the archdiocese listed assets of only $19 million. But lawyers for sex-abuse victims argued that the archdiocese also owns the property of the 124 parishes, which are collectively valued at over $600 million.

By including all parishes and parishioners in the bankruptcy case, the court hopes to settle all disputes about the ownership of Church property in western Oregon. If the court finds that parish properties are owned by the archdiocese, they could be sold to pay the claims of sex-abuse victims. If the bankruptcy court finds that the parish properties belong to the parishioners, those resources will not be available to satisfy the claims of sex-abuse victims.

Lawyers for all parties in the case agreed that individual parishioners would not be held personally liable for legal damages. However, parishes and schools could be closed if the court finds that they belong to the archdiocese.

Registered members of the 124 parishes in the Portland archdiocese will receive formal written notice of their inclusion in the case in coming weeks. Three parishioners and three priests will appear in court as representatives of the class, but all parishioners will have the opportunity to appear and ask questions about the case. Lawyers for the archdiocese say that the cost of notifying the 389,000 defendants will be about $80,000.

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