PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Nearly a year after a settlement was announced to end the first bankruptcy in the nation declared by a Roman Catholic diocese, a dispute over the disclosure of church documents on sexual abuse by priests is headed back to federal court.
Victim advocates contend the documents show church leaders knew more about the abuse than they have ever admitted, while the church says the extent of the disclosure remains a legal matter best left to the courts to decide.
The release of the documents was part of the agreement reached last April to settle about 175 sex abuse claims against the Archdiocese of Portland for more than $50 million and set aside another $20 million for future claims.
But negotiations for the release have broken down, sending the case back to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris for a ruling that could finally settle the matter, or the case could be sent the dispute back to the two judges who acted as mediators in the massive case, according to attorneys and church officials.
Kelly Clark, a Portland attorney who has represented more than 100 alleged abuse victims, withdrew from the negotiations after the church demanded the names of victims who came forward after the settlement be made public.
Clark said the church had never demanded the victims be identified in previous lawsuits, and suggested it was a legal tactic to discourage additional complaints. The church has denied such tactics were used and says it was simply asking the court to set the rules for future suits.
Under an agreement worked out to negotiate the release of the documents, retired Lane County Circuit Judge Lyle Velure will mediate the dispute over which documents can be released if the matter cannot be settled at a March 13 hearing before Perris.
If the two sides still disagree, the matter will be sent to U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan for settlement through binding arbitration.
Velure and Hogan won praise for their role as mediators who helped the church and the victims reach the settlement last year, nearly three years after the Archdiocese of Portland became the first diocese in the nation to file for bankruptcy in July 2004. The move headed off multimillion-dollar lawsuits that were ready to go to trial.
Meanwhile, another Portland attorney who has represented alleged victims has separately asked Perris to release documents the judge sealed under a protective order.
Erin Olson said the church has failed to live up to its promise to release many of the documents. She has about 1,600 pages she wants made public.
“Many of the documents I propose releasing were not filed in bankruptcy court,” Olson said.
Bud Bunce, the archdiocese spokesman, said the church is following the procedure set out for any dispute over the documents. “We agreed on the process during the bankruptcy,” Bunce said.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, accused the church of trying to prevent public disclosure about how much church leaders knew about alleged sexual abuse, and whether they tried to cover it up.
“I hate to sound like a broken record, but we see this all across the country,” Clohessy said. “The pattern is the same, even after a settlement – church officials fight tooth and nail to avoid disclosing how much, and how soon, they knew about these predators.”
Last July, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached a $660 million settlement with victims, followed by a settlement for nearly $200 million by the Diocese of San Diego. The San Diego diocese had joined four other Catholic dioceses in filing for bankruptcy: Portland, Tucson, Ariz., Spokane, Wash., and Davenport, Iowa.