Friday, October 13, 2006

Fourth Catholic Diocese Files Chapter 11

This week the Diocese of Davenport filed for chapter 11 protection in the Southern District of Iowa (Case No. 06-02229). At least three other Catholic Dioceses have filed for chapter 11 protection in response to sexual abuse lawsuits. Each of the three other cases was filed during 2004. Of the prior cases, the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Tucson has successfully confirmed a plan (although that order is under appeal), while the cases for the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Portland and the Catholic Bishop of Spokane are pending with competing plans. Together, the four dioceses serve nearly 900,000 parishioners.

The Difficult Dynamic

The Catholic Diocese cases present an unusual dynamic for a chapter 11 case.

(1) The cases were prompted by waves of sexual abuse tort claims dating back decades. In each instance, the case was precipitated by sexual abuse tort claims. The underlying acts of abuse occurred anywhere from the 1930s to the 1980s. However, the lawsuit claims did not emerge until the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although several of the dioceses were able to settle an initial wave of cases, they found more cases coming out of the woodwork as publicity spread and claims averaged in the millions. As a result, the dioceses could not determine how many claims would ultimately be filed and could not rely upon insurance and current assets to resolve claims as they came in.

(2) The cases created a conflict between the betrayed and the faithful. The bad acts were performed by a limited number of bad actors (approximately 15 in the Spokane case) and were allegedly covered up by a finite number of persons in positions of authority. However, it was not possible to get justice from the bad actors and their facilitators, some of whom were already dead themselves. Instead, the major liability would be borne by the dioceses and their insurance companies. The insurance companies, many of whom were defending under a reservation of rights, were able to limit their exposure through their contracts. That left the dioceses themselves holding the final liability. However, a diocese is nothing more than the current and accumulated contributions of the faithful. As a result, the current faithful were in a position of having to pay for the sins of their church. This conflict between the faithful and the betrayed was especially apparent in Spokane and Portland where the courts ruled that property used by the parishes was owned by the dioceses rather than the individual congregations.

The challenge for the Catholic Dioceses and the lawyers for the tort claimants was to find a solution which would provide compensation and vindication to those who had been sexually abused without so alienating the parishioners that they lost faith and allowed the diocese to collapse.

A Learning Process

The Catholic Dioceses appear to be learning from experience. The Portland case, which was the first filed, was marked by acrimony from day one. While first day motions are normally routine, one pro se creditor objected to a motion to maintain cash management systems on the ground that the church should not be allowed to use a bank with Catholic officers due to the potential for conflict of interest. In the subsequent cases, the first day motions were used as a vehicle to tell the Diocese's story with descriptions of the historic background of the diocese, the ministries provided, the persons served and the church's response to the sexual abuse crisis. The first day motions in the recent Davenport case show a remarkable similarity to those in the Tucson and Spokane cases.

In the Portland case, the Debtor did not file a plan for sixteen months (by which time it was docket entry #2389) and drew a competing plan shortly thereafter. However, in the Tucson case, the Debtor filed a plan on the first day of the case, which was ultimately confirmed.

In the Portland and Spokane cases, the Debtor was faced with adversary proceedings determining that parish properties were property of the estate. In the Tucson and Davenport cases, the Debtor entered the case with a position as to why the parish properties were not included in the estate.

Based on a review of the lengthy docket in the Portland case, it appears that every issue that could be committed to paper and litigated was. In at least the Tucson case, the process appeared to be more focused and battles were chosen more selectively.

A Note About Fees

One feature common to all of the Catholic Diocese cases has been the relatively low billing rates charged by Debtor's counsel. The rates charged by principal counsel include $200 per hour in Spokane, $230 per hour in Davenport, $300 per hour in Tucson and $325 per hour in Portland. This contrasts with the eye-popping rates of $500-$600 per hour starting to appear in some large cases. Perhaps the church lawyers realized that there was already plenty that would appear obscene in their cases without obscene billings.

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