Big front-page story in The O today (although it's not really news) about how the Catholic archbishop of Portland is telling victims of priestly pedophilia that he's too broke to pay them any damages. According to Archbishop John Vlazny, he can't liquidate church parish assets to pay damages to the victims, because under "canon law," those assets have always belonged to the parishes, not the archdiocese. The archbishop contends that although hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property is in his name, he's just been holding it "in trust" for the parishes. And so unless the plaintiffs in the child sex abuse cases go away, he'll file for bankruptcy for the archdiocese and tell those plaintiffs to go take a hike.
A very interesting theory. I give it less than a 20 percent chance of prevailing.
When you hold assets in trust, under the actual, real, civil laws of this country, you say so in the title of the property. That's never been the case with the Catholic Church. There's never been the slightest whiff of any "trust" for the parishes, until now, when it's most convenient to "discover" one. The church has always been a top-down organization, in which the congregation, and even its priests, have been ruled with an iron hand. There's never been any mechanism whereby the parishes -- the supposed beneficiaries of Bishop Vlazny's "trusts" -- have had any right to demand anything whatsoever. They're not trust beneficiaries, not even close. They're subjects of a hierarchy.
"Canon law" is a fascinating distraction in these cases. But in the end, it's like the bylaws of any nonprofit organization. Internally, it rules the roost. But when it comes to paying off outside creditors, including tort victims, it shouldn't, and probably won't, mean jack squat.
When I was growing up, I was always taught that the church wasn't about buildings and money. We were always reminded that early Christians held their services in caves, and that persecuted Catholics throughout the ages made do with makeshift houses of worship. We learned that the church wasn't ultimately reliant on its fancy buildings and bejeweled altars and robes, but rather on the riches of the souls of the faithful.
If, under the laws of this country, the church owes millions of dollars to people who as children were sexually abused by priests, I for one would like to see them compensated for the harm caused to them. If that means selling lots of church real estate and holding Mass in tents, so be it.
As a Catholic, I wish the church would stop behaving like a common deadbeat. Pay our debts, Archbishop Vlazny, and let's get on with our spiritual lives.