Spokane Diocese tries to clean up "a hell of a mess"

SPOKANE — In this city of 200,000, where the Catholic Church has long been a political and social force, the bankruptcy of a diocese and the sex scandal that caused it have created deep divisions.

Parishioners are afraid of losing their schools and churches to help pay damage awards to abuse victims. Victims feel they've been branded as villains out for money. Some Catholics have lost confidence in their bishop's ability to guide them out of the mess — morally or fiscally.

And as the bitter bankruptcy case drags well into its second year, most everyone involved is feeling frustrated, if not anxious and weary.

But finally on Friday, parties in the case gathered before a judge in Reno, Nev., to begin mediation talks aimed at settling with victims and leading the diocese out of bankruptcy. No resolution is expected from the talks this month, and already, another meeting has been scheduled for August.

On a practical level, the stakes are great: For some victims, the talks could bring an end to years of legal wrangling and clarify how much compensation they'll get. Parishioners could come away knowing how much of that money they'll have to foot, and if their parish will survive. And the diocese could get a roadmap back to financial solvency, helping ensure its very survival.

On a personal level, the talks bring into focus the losses some have already endured and others may still face.

Priests have cut their salaries.

Some families have turned from the church. Once leaders of their parish, Ann and Terry Corrigan can no longer face going to Mass.

Others, like Dick Henricks, try to stay positive but still harbor fears about losing the life they've built around a parish.

Retired Army Col. Richard Quinn, a friend of Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, now questions Skylstad's ability to lead. The bishop is a good and holy man, Quinn says. But he "made a tragic blunder in going into bankruptcy. ... I think he's operating in good faith. I just think he's in over his head. ... It's just a hell of a mess."

Long history

Though the Diocese of Spokane has but a fifth as many Catholics as the Archdiocese of Seattle, the church's roots in Spokane are deep and its influence is broadly felt.

Catholic missionaries, who began arriving in Spokane around the 1830s, helped found what today are among the area's most prominent institutions.

Sacred Heart Medical Center, founded by Mother Joseph in 1886, is today both the largest nonprofit employer in Spokane County and the largest hospital between Seattle and Minneapolis.

Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution, was founded in 1887, and has produced such national figures as former House Speaker Tom Foley and many Spokane-area doctors, lawyers and civic leaders. At one time, the mayor and all the members of the City Council were Catholics.

Ann and Terry Corrigan were raised in that community.

Terry Corrigan served as president of Assumption parish while Ann Corrigan was a Eucharistic minister and volunteer at the church and school.

Then, four years ago, their son Tim committed suicide on the very day he'd disclosed to his wife that a former priest at Assumption abused him as a child. In the weeks that followed, parishioners were sympathetic.

"But they somehow disassociated that it was the priest that abused, and the hierarchy that covered up the abuse," Terry Corrigan said. After Tim's death, they learned their son Michael had also been abused. Michael and Tim's widow are among those who have sued the diocese.

Relationships with old church friends became awkward, and the Corrigans became more involved in groups looking to reform the church. Gradually, they began to feel that "standing with the people in the pews — it's like we're in solidarity with them, and we're not," said Ann Corrigan, 64, a homemaker.

The Corrigans remember the moment they decided they could no longer bear to attend Mass. It was last Palm Sunday. Terry Corrigan said neither had slept well the night before, and when they awoke, they looked at each other.

"Ann said: 'I don't think I can go to Mass today.' I said: 'I can't either.' That was it. We sat on the edge of the bed, said a couple of prayers, and had breakfast."

They still consider themselves Catholic, reading the Bible and saying their Hail Mary and Our Father prayers to sustain them through the endless legal proceedings.

"There are so many ups and downs and twists and turns in the legal system," Terry Corrigan said. "It is very frustrating to just be at a point when you think something is really positively moving forward, then wham, the door slams shut and you're back at square one."

There have been plenty such moments. A bankruptcy judge ruled in August that parish property could potentially be sold to help the diocese pay for settlements. And a group of 75 victims who've filed lawsuits were relieved when negotiations resulted in a $45.7 million settlement offer from the diocese.

But in the past several months, a judge rejected the settlement offer. And another judge's ruling meant that parishes likely could not be liquidated by the diocese. That likely means a smaller pot for settlements.

All these developments have made Mark Mains, one of the 75 victims, wonder if the bishop was offering that settlement in good faith. "Did they mean it at all? It was good PR. But was it real?"

"A social fabric"

At Assumption parish, where several hundred gather for Sunday Mass, families have often known each other for decades.

Dick Henricks, 79, a retired railroad revenue forecaster and parish benefactor, has served as Eucharistic minister and, through the retired men's club, does yardwork and attends the funeral of any parishioner who dies.

Several times a week after daily Mass, he joins a group to go to McDonald's, where they drink coffee and solve the world's problems. Last year when his wife died, parishioners brought food and helped make funeral arrangements.

The parish "becomes a very big part of your life. There's a social fabric there," he said. Losing that "would be on a parity with losing my home. It would really set me back."

But Henricks believes that may not happen because "the bishop will guide us through."

Retired Col. Richard Quinn and his wife, Patty Quinn, are more philosophical about the possibility of such a loss.

As a military family, "wherever we moved, we would go to church and feel like we belonged," said Patty Quinn, 67.

Still, for these lifelong Catholics, Assumption has come to mean a lot. They settled in Spokane 19 years ago because it was a good Catholic town, and they bought their house to be close to Assumption parish and school. Patty Quinn worked at the school for 10 years as a teacher's aide.

Richard Quinn, 69, is happy about the recent court ruling protecting parishes from being liquidated, but he worries that people may now file lawsuits against individual parishes where abusive priests have served, and is frustrated at the millions of dollars the diocese has had to pay in attorney fees.

He just wants it to be over and is more than willing to contribute to a financial settlement with victims.

"Let's not deepen the wounds any more with the bitterness of litigation," he said. "Let's sort it out and move on with it. We are a church that cares about people."


Priests and church employees have sacrificed as well.

For a year, the 45 priests in the Spokane Diocese — who make only about $1,200 a month — took a salary cut of $100 a month. And the diocese has had to dip into general funds that had been earmarked for their retirement.

There have been program cuts, too. Richard Quinn works in the diocese's prison ministry and says the bishop paid out of his own pocket to buy missals for the ministry to hand out.

And real estate has been put up for sale as well. The diocese's administrative building, and the bishops' residence — a humble home worth about $90,000, says Shaun Cross, the diocese's attorney — are up for sale, as are large plots of land.

Tensions have reached the point where two judges have strongly urged immediate mediation.

Both "made it very clear that this case really is the poster child" for one that requires parties to sit down and work it out, Cross said.

Otherwise, "it could be litigated for years and years and years."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Major developments in the bankruptcy case of the Spokane Diocese

December 2004: Spokane Diocese declares bankruptcy.

August 2005: U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Patricia Williams rules that parish churches and schools are owned by the diocese and can potentially be sold to pay for settlements to sex-abuse victims.

February 2006: Diocese announces a settlement offer of $45.7 million to a group of 75 victims. The proposal is later opposed by the Association of Parishes and lawyers for other victims who say it isn't fair for a dollar amount to be set for one group of victims while those outside the settlement would likely receive far less in the future.

May: Williams rejects the $45.7 million settlement offer.

June: U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush reverses Williams' earlier ruling that the diocese owns parish property.

July: Mediation talks begin, with lawyers for the 75 victims pushing for the $45.7 million settlement offer while others want to first determine the overall extent of church funds, and then a way to split it among all victims and other claimants.

Sources: Attorneys representing the victims' groups, parishes and the diocese