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Balancing the Books 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & federal judge's approval last week of a settlement to pay $48 million to nearly 200 people who were abused as children by clergy in the Catholic Church was hailed as a significant step towards healing and closure. But the giant step has opened fissures even as it's closed others.





Claimants in the bankruptcy who have suffered sexual abuse still have the right to bring a case to trial, but this is unlikely given the strictures and dynamics of the settlement. And without trials, specific acts of hurt and evil will never be dragged out into the light of full exposure, some sex abuse victims say.





Many Catholics, from wealthy magnates to widows on pensions, object to paying at least $10 million into the settlement fund, while -- on the surface anyway -- it appears abuser priests and the church leaders who covered for them are getting off scot-free. And there appears to be a wave of restlessness throughout the diocese as parishioners question whether anything has truly changed in a church wrenched by scandal and heartache.





"Not one victim in the country is thinking about the money," says Mike Ross of Spokane, one of the local leaders of SNAP -- the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "I am thinking more about the other things."





There seems to be little justice, Ross says, when abusers or church officials are not put on the witness stand to be cross-examined about their actions.





When abuse victims meet with Kate Pflaumer, the former U.S. Attorney appointed by the bankruptcy court to adjudicate claims, "that's going to be our day in court," Ross says. "That's when we get a chance to say, 'This is what happened to me. This is where my life is at,' when we have a two- or three- or four-hour conversation about how we were damaged."





Plaintiffs' attorney Duane Rasmussen says some of his clients have already met with Plfaumer in sessions that can be emotionally grueling.





"She says very little. She is sensitive, but astute," Rasmussen says. "She does ask for a photo of the claimant from about the time of the abuse so she can remember faces and remember stories."





There is a lack of catharsis that would have come from telling their stories under oath in a courtroom, says Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney who was one of the first to fight for victims of sexual abuse in the Spokane diocese when the scandal erupted here five years ago.





"This has been a long battle and the victims came together. I hope they take some measure of satisfaction knowing they accomplished something important: The church has been changed. Even the most conservative Catholics will never look at the institution or the diocese or the leadership the same way, and that," says Kosnoff, "is a good thing."





Small Diocese, Big Problem


"I think the bankruptcy was the best way to talk to the victims and address their reality," says Spokane Bishop William Skylstad. Lawsuits involving former priest Pat O'Donnell -- believed to be the diocese's most notorious child abuser -- were headed for trial late in 2004 when Skylstad reached the decision to seek bankruptcy protection.





"Those first cases teed up were the worst cases," he says, and likely to result in stratospheric damage awards. "I wanted to treat as justly as we could all the victims, not just those in the first few cases.





"Spokane was probably the smallest diocese -- and probably the poorest -- with that many cases," Skylstad says. The bankruptcy, although painful in different ways at different times for abuse victims, regular Catholics and church officials, did force everyone to confront the scope of the claims and of the resources, resulting in the unanimous acceptance of the reorganization plan two weeks ago.





"I am glad for that. I am encouraged by that," Skylstad says. "We want to be as open and as transparent as we can be. We are dealing with emotional pain. We are dealing with people who have held secrets in their lives for years. Right now we are looking to healing and reconciliation. We are undertaking a massive effort to make sure this never happens again."





"I don't want to be part of a system that made it possible to cover these things up for 30 years," says Shonna Bartlett, a "cradle Catholic" who is the program director of a ministry institute affiliated with Gonzaga University.





Bartlett is among a number of Catholics in the diocese who have formed local chapters of groups such as Call To Action or Voice of the Faithful, which seek a more populist, less autocratic church. The national sex abuse scandal was created in part by a hierarchy that hoards power, makes most of the decisions and is often clouded in secrecy, these critics say.





Bartlett points to the startlingly brief lifespan of the Parish Restructuring Study Group as a recent example of parishioners being marginalized.





The study group was formed under the auspices of the Association of Parishes -- the player in the bankruptcy that spoke on behalf of individual parishes that are worried about being on the hook for the settlement. Parishioners became alarmed last year at the prospect of losing schools or churches as the question of parish ownership was raised in Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams' court. That question has been sidestepped as part of the settlement.





But as the Association of Parishes was tasked with incorporating parishes as 501(c)(3) corporations to outline responsibilities; meanwhile, the related question of who runs the parishes emerged.





And so the study group was formed. "We were notified of these committees and that laity was welcome," Bartlett says.





But the meeting in mid-March drew only eight parishioners (versus four priests and three attorneys) and, strikingly, she says, the eight were from the only two parishes in the diocese -- St. Al's and St. Ann's -- that have lay administrators.





The rumor going around, Bartlett says, was that the other parishes weren't told of the meeting. In any event, she adds, it was an awkward affair where no introductions were made and priests did all the talking.





Days later, the group received an e-mail from Fr. Mike Savelesky, the priest co-chair of the Association of Parishes, saying "...the group does not have the legal background or historical nuance in order to address properly the restructuring issues -- particularly given the time restraints."





"I fired off a missile," Bartlett says of her reaction after seeing that e-mail. "Let's call a spade a spade. This study group was dissolved because it did not consist of 'yes-men.' Instead, intelligent adult Catholics questioned the clergy-driven models ... and presented alternatives that might be more collaborative, life-giving and Gospel-based," she wrote.





She never heard back.





A Changed Church?


Bartlett and others energized by the failure of leadership during the decades of sex abuse say the system itself is broken. Lay people must demand a greater voice, she says, to break the walls of secrecy, denial and lies.





"My faith is based in the Gospel, and my theology is based in Vatican II, which urged the 'full, conscious and active participation' of all the faithful in the liturgy and the world," Bartlett says. "I believe this is also applicable to our role in the church itself."





Skylstad, during a recent interview in his new, smaller office at the downtown Chancery -- one of several properties sold to raise money for the settlement -- insists the hierarchy does collaborate with its laity.





"There was a lot of consultation ongoing," he says, citing a list of committees and councils whose advice was sought. And there has been a series of seven regional meetings where Skylstad addresses parishioners. "We are respectful for what they say. Some people come to meetings with agendas."


And here is the disconnect, Bartlett says: Listening is not enough.





Skylstad admits to tension in the diocese and sees it in a positive way: "There will always be tension, that is the human church. You will always find decisions made by myself or by pastors will not be liked by everyone. We listen to people, but ultimately someone has to make a decision. This is our structure."





This debate touches a national nerve. A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University shows 85 percent of Catholics were happy with the performances of their own bishops, according to polling conducted in October 2005 (up from 81 percent in 2002).





But the same research shows 78 percent of Catholics are not listening to bishops and are making up their own minds on important moral issues such as contraception, women's equality and married priests.





Kosnoff observes that the wake of the scandal is something of a turning point for the Catholic Church in general, and in Spokane in particular.





"The diocese is going to have to start over," Kosnoff says. And with all the price tags floating around saying what this parish or that cemetery or which charity or what real estate is worth in dollars and cents, there has also been a realization of what the diocese is worth in spiritual value, he says.





It's a cautionary tale, then, "That if you blindly trust or are indifferent, this is what can happen," Kosnoff says.





A Time to Heal


Skylstad offers apologies and asks for forgiveness frequently. Who is he apologizing to, what is he apologizing for?





"That is precisely the right question," Kosnoff says, calling Skylstad a most inscrutable man. "He has never admitted his own complicity [Skylstad once supervised and shared a house with O'Donnell], and in his deposition he said 'I don't know' something like 742 times. The bankruptcy added delay, and there was the lack of catharsis of the victims being able to tell their stories -- that was taken from them."





On the other hand, Kosnoff says, "$48 million does represent accountability for a diocese of this size and wealth."





Asked directly, the bishop says, "I apologize first to the victims. You can't say you are sorry enough times ... the pain and the sorrow are so deep. Some have lost their faith in organized religion and Catholicism."





Skylstad also apologizes to the broader community for the embarrassment and to other churches in Spokane for the stain it may put on ministry.





"This has been very arduous," Kosnoff says. "When you handle a case like this, you experience vicariously the pain and the frustration of the clients. I have heard and felt so much pain and sadness and sorrow that I probably need psychotherapy myself. And I'm not being facetious."





After five years of representing clients without pay -- and fronting $1 million in legal costs, Kosnoff says -- he is most proud, not of the monetary settlement but of a variety of reforms that allow people who suffered sexual abuse by clergy to tell their stories to the congregation by either speaking in the church at Mass, or writing in the Inland Register; to receive a face-to-face apology from the bishop; by requiring the bishop to work towards removing statutes of limitations on criminal child sex-abuse cases, and to list the names of all abuser priests.





Skylstad "is the first bishop to agree to these. We understand he took a lot of heat from other bishops around the country for this," Kosnoff says.





"These apologies and the non-economic reforms ... I am proudest of that," Kosnoff says. Even if only one or two victims take advantage, the stories should be powerful enough to force Catholics and clergy to not want to go through this again.





"Most of the victims feel so betrayed, they don't want anything to do with this church again," he adds. "So these reforms are important symbolically, but who are they really for?"





It is for a church, Skylstad says, that recognizes the signals of sexual abuse in a way it never did before and that has taken steps of training, screening and accountability to keep it from happening again.





"There are things now we make public immediately and things we now report to police when we didn't before," he says.





It is for a church, Bartlett says, that must reconnect with its populist roots to open up a walled-off hierarchy that allows bureaucracy and power to impede its values.





"To me, the church is the people of God. It is a community that challenges me, comforts me, lifts me up," says Bartlett. "That's the church."





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