By Bill Bishop
PORTLAND — Lawyers who charge the Archdiocese of Portland is going back on a promise to open its records about priests who sexually abused children were back in court Thursday to ask a judge to decide what should happen to thousands of documents in question.
The judge set a schedule for hearings that should settle the controversy in October.
The disputed records were part of an April settlement in the archdiocese’s historic bankruptcy reorganization, the first in the nation by a Catholic diocese facing lawsuits that sought millions of dollars in damages for sexual abuse by priests.
The reorganization, filed in 2004, paid $77 million to settle 175 lawsuits. It allowed the archdiocese to continue operations without selling any parish or school properties. As part of the deal, Archbishop John Vlazny released some priest personnel and other church records, and said other documents may be released through a mediation process between the church and lawyers for victims.
The mediation process broke down last month when one of the main negotiators for abuse victims, attorney Kelly Clark of Portland, walked out. Clark said Thursday he is embarrassed that he ever believed church leaders intended to keep their promise.
Another lawyer for abuse victims, Erin Olson of Portland, then asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris to open records that had been under seal in the case. Olson said she never had any faith in the mediation process between the church and Clark, and refused to participate in it.
Archdiocese spokesman Bud Bunce said Thursday that both lawyers are jumping to conclusions and rushing a process that had been set up for the purpose.
“We have already released a number of documents,” Bunce said. “We have said we will release more, and we are in the process of working that out. It does take a certain amount of time.”
In court Thursday, Perris made it clear that she intends to settle the controversy as quickly as possible.
“It has been a long time,” Perris told lawyers for both sides. “This process isn’t going to take another year. I can assure you of that.”
Perris encouraged both sides to continue negotiating to settle on as many disputed documents as possible through the mediation/arbitration process involving Clark. But she also set out a parallel court process that will conclude with a hearing Sept. 30 after which she will rule on any remaining documents.
The outcome either will set a precedent for Catholic organizations nationwide, or will shift the fight for church accountability to another diocese elsewhere in the country, said John Shuster, a former Catholic priest and current member of the national board for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
He said abuse survivors will never stop pushing for public safety from pedophile priests, and for accountability among church leaders who covered up their crimes against children.
“The bishop should be made to live up to what he agreed to,” said Shuster, who attended Thursday’s hearing. “There are priests out there who have committed serious sex crimes against children. They have never been identified. There is information in those records that is going to show more priests and more complicit church leaders. You can be 80 years old and still abuse a child. This is an issue of public safety.”
However, Bunce said church leaders have publicly and repeatedly apologized for abuse by clergy and for failures in leadership. He said the archdiocese has implemented policies to help educate parents, teachers and children about recognizing, reporting and preventing child abuse.
“We are not in denial about this,” Bunce said. “We understand it very clearly.”