More than mediationPublished: Wednesday, December 13, 2006
The word “mediation” is hardly sufficient to describe the effort required to forge Monday’s announced settlement resolving nearly 150 lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland. The suits were filed by people claiming to have been sexually abused by priests in Western Oregon.
Because of an unnecessary gag order on attorneys and all parties involved in the case, details of the settlement and the bankruptcy reorganization of the archdiocese won’t be available until later this month. But the mere fact that U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan and Lane County Circuit Judge Lyle Velure managed to resolve all but 20 claims and to complete a reorganization plan that could allow the archdiocese to resume normal operations after three years of bankruptcy represents a remarkable achievement.
Consider the formidable challenges that confronted Hogan and Velure when they began secret talks with parties in the case last August: Two judges with very different temperaments and working across jurisdictional lines found themselves confronted with a disparate group of plaintiffs and an archdiocese that had very different ideas about what constituted just compensation for victims of sexual abuse by priests.
The legal landscape could hardly have been more jumbled with obstacles. There were claims filed on insurance policies written three decades ago. There were the complexities of Roman Catholic canon law, which the archdiocese claimed prevented it from selling individual parishes’ property and schools to satisfy judgments. There were the claimants who insisted on their cases going to trial, and the possibility of claims that have yet to be filed.
Then there were the wrenching dynamics of human emotion: The anguish of victims of clergy sexual abuse who rightly regarded just settlements as an integral part of the healing process. The anxiety of church members uncertain if their local parishes and schools might be sold to pay legal claims. The frustration of church officials struggling to balance the need to keep the archdiocese intact with their responsibility to justly compensate victims.
If the reorganization plan is accepted next week by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Velure and Hogan will have succeeded in resolving one of the most difficult mass litigations in Oregon history. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment that vividly demonstrates the important role that judges can, and often do, play by resolving legal disputes before they go to trial, devouring vast amounts of time and money and leaving deep emotional scars.
Thanks to the efforts of Hogan and Velure, the parties involved in the abuse cases will be spared months, perhaps years, of protracted and costly litigation. Victims will be able to move on with their lives, the archdiocese can emerge from the cloud of bankruptcy, local parishes and schools will be able to plan with certainty for their futures, and sex-abuse victims who have yet to come forward will find resources available to settle their claims.
This many-sided and far-reaching resolution will gain a rightful place in Oregon history.