Associated Press, Feb. 3, 2003
By Jeff Barnard
BEND, Ore. – A judge on Monday barred the Roman Catholic bishop for Eastern Oregon from transferring assets held by the diocese to its 50 individual churches in what plaintiffs contend is a test case for dioceses nationwide that face sex abuse lawsuits.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baker faces nearly $70 million in claims from 18 men who claim they were sexually abused in the 1950s and 1960s by the late Rev. David Hazen.
Their attorney, David Slader, argued that Bishop Robert Vasa was testing a strategy to see if he and other bishops nationwide could avoid millions in damages by turning over assets to individual churches.
“Oregon is the test case the church is using for this asset protection strategy,” Slader said. “This is a historic moment. It sends a message to dioceses around the country that they are being held accountable for their sins.”
Greg Lynch, the attorney representing the Diocese of Baker, denied that the bishop was trying to protect assets from sexual abuse claims.
He echoed the bishop’s earlier statements that transferring titles for individual churches and other property to the parishes that use them was intended to bring the diocese in line with others around the country. Lynch said Vasa had intended to do the transfers before the abuse lawsuit was filed.
“These assets are not being dissipated. They are simply going to their rightful and legal owner,” Lynch said. “Don’t be persuaded by the profound horror of the acts alleged to have occurred decades ago.”
Bishop Vasa, who was not at the hearing, has said the diocese has no hope of paying such damages, and he would prefer to resolve the alleged victims’ complaints individually without going to court.
Bill Crane, Oregon coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said there was no other way.
“Victims, including myself, have been coming forward for 30, 40 years and have been treated like the enemy,” Crane said. “Unfortunately, money is the only language the church understands and responds to.”
Deschutes County Circuit Judge Michael Adler issued a temporary restraining order barring the transfers pending a full hearing on whether to grant a permanent injunction. Attorneys for both sides said they expect Bishop Vasa to testify, and that the hearing would not be scheduled for some months.
Slader said a search of tax records showed property held by the diocese assessed at $19 million.
Adler did not immediately rule on the diocese’s motion to divide the case into 18 separate trials, rather than one consolidated trial.
He also gave the plaintiffs permission to seek $50,000 each in punitive damages in addition to the $3.8 million they are each seeking from the diocese. That totals $69.3 million for the 18 plaintiffs.
In arguing for punitive damages, Slader noted that he has obtained a confession signed by Hazen and a pledge of secrecy signed by a former alter boy promising the diocese he would never divulge the abuse.
Slader added that the late Bishop Francis Leipzig sent Hazen to Milwaukee, Wis., for treatment, and after a year assigned him without supervision to a church in Klamath Falls, where he continued to molest boys for 10 years. Rumors there prompted the diocese to transfer him to a series of small-town parishes around Eastern Oregon.
“He is like a little boy in a candy shop with open shelves,” Slader said of Hazen. “He integrates his abuse into the rituals of the church, telling parents ‘I will come bless your son before he goes too bed,’ then goes up and molests them.”
Lynch argued against allowing the plaintiffs to seek punitive damages, citing a Supreme Court ruling that said they should be imposed rarely and only to change the behavior of people or institutions.
In arguing for separate trials, Lynch said it would be impossible for jurors to keep so many claims separate.
“If you have 18 people come into court for the same trial, we are going to lose that jury the second day,” he said. “They are going to say all these people can’t be lying.”