Blog Author: Kelly Clark, attorney
Date: August 3, 2008
No one was more hopeful than I, fifteen months ago at the conclusion of the bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of Portland. I believed– and I now see that I WANTED to believe– the promises of Archbishop John Vlazny, of his advisors and his lawyers. Those promises talked of treating victims of sexual abuse by priests with compassion. They offered hope that, in the future, the Archdiocese would be open and forthcoming about the records of past criminal conduct by pedophile priests and the bishops who covered up for them. Archbishop Vlazny himself led a mass of healing and reconciliation, again offering words of sorrow, repentance and new beginnings.
As I say, I believed these words. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the Archbishop and his lawyers, congratulated him on doing the right thing in resolving cases and in making the hard decisions to open the files of the past. See news articles here. I gave presentations and wrote articles on it all. See here. As a person of Christian faith, albeit a very flawed and broken one, I was particularly pleased that we– my clients, other abuse survivors and their lawyers– had held out for a nearly unique commitment and promise from the Archbishop that he would open the files of the past. I believed that this church could not achieve healing and reconciliation for itself, its members and its victims without shedding its old habit of secrecy, and so I was delighted at the promises. I was even proud, thinking that my clients, other abuse survivors, and I and other lawyers had really accomplished something, that we had helped change an institution that had failed to live up to its own best ideals, and certainly to the example and words of its Lord. “A new era of openness” I foolishly called it.
Well, how things change. Now– over a year later– now that the lights of the TV cameras are off, now that the media and the public aren’t watching, now that the Archdiocese does not need the cooperation of plaintiffs or their lawyers to get out of a self made mess of a bankruptcy, now that the plaintiffs bring claims one at a time– instead of dozens and scores at a time, as before– my, my how things have changed.
Compassion for victims? The Archbishop and his lawyers are litigating new cases like any other powerful corporation with a pack of insurance lawyers. He has attempted to force plaintiffs to use their full names in public litigation, breaking the time-honored practice, virtually unanimously agreed upon by all institutions facing child abuse cases (Boy Scouts, the Mormon Church, schools, etc), that recognizes that plaintiffs in these cases are crime victims, are covered with the shame of child abuse, and do not need or deserve to be identified publicly. For news coverage of this incredible move, click here. When confronted publicly about this in court papers and by the news media, the Archbishop and his spokespersons have responded in ways that are, at best, simply disingenuous–claiming that all they were doing was leaving it up to the Court. Well, that just isn’t so. The fact is, courts NEVER raise the issue on their own. It was the Archbishop’s move, and only that, that tried to force survivors to use their names publicly. Fortunately, a humane and common sense federal judge saw through the tactic, and refused to countenance it.
A new era of openness? The Archbishop and his lawyers have fought full disclosure of the files of the pedophile priests tooth and nail, and even as late as July, 2008, were filing papers in bankruptcy court and in federal court to protect the files of such notorious pedophiles as Fr Thomas Laughlin. Even in the process of mediation and arbitration of the issues relating to openness, the Archdiocese sought to secret the entire briefing and arbitration of the agreement to release files. Yes, that’s right– in a proceeding where the sole issue was the Archbishop’s promise to open old files and change old ways, he sought to have the proceeding itself kept secret! And, although the Archdiocese and its lawyers quickly point to the “thousands” of pages of documents they have publicly released, a comparison of that which they have publicly released with that which is actually in the files that they routinely must turn over to plaintiffs in litigation, shows that they continue to be quite selective in what they release. Just one example suffices; concerning Laughlin. In litigation they turn over thousands of pages of documents, because they have to. Yet, as of summer 2008, what they have posted publicly on the internet concerning Laughlin is sparse and selective. Even more staggering, as recently as late July 2008, they filed papers in bankruptcy court ON THE SIDE OF FR LAUGLHIN, as he personally objects to further public release of his files. Once again– as with bishops going back 40 years– a bishop of the Archdiocese of Portland sides with Fr Laughlin against the interests of abuse survivors and against the full truth coming out.
Choosing a new way? In the face of new claims of abuse against some of the same old perpetrators– Laughlin, Grammond, etc– the Archbishop refused offers of pre-litigation mediation time and time again, instead choosing to litigate each case as vigorously and aggressively as possible, ignoring the cruel impact that such a tactic has on abuse survivors, who most of all want and need closure and justice. He even had his lawyers resist early and global mediation suggested by the federal judge overseeing the new litigation, arguing instead for a litigation-heavy approach that undoubtedly was intended to wear down victims with the brutal tactics and unending delays of litigation.
The fact is that, for the Archdiocese of Portland, nothing has changed. In my view, the Archbishop has broken, or stretched to the breaking point, virtually every one of his bankruptcy promises. It is really no different than the bishops before him, and their promises to “handle” problems of abusive priests. After years of litigation, we learned what that meant: it meant nothing. It appears now, as to Archbishop John Vlazny’s promises at the conclusion of the bankruptcy, it still means nothing. No one is more disappointed than I.