Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Association of Parishes begins work; continuation of ministry is the goal

the Inland Register

(From the Dec. 16, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Stepping into truly uncharted waters, the Association of Parishes (known briefly in its infancy as the Parish Rights Association) held its first formal meeting at St. Augustine Parish Hall, Sunday, Nov. 21.

Thirty-six of the diocese’s 51 pastors and parish administrators were present, as well as 54 lay representatives from 46 parishes throughout the diocese. A few of the participants were present with observer status.

The Association was called into existence by a gathering of pastors and parish administrators who met at St. John Vianney Parish on Oct. 28. The meeting, convened at the initiative of the pastors themselves, resulted in the perceived need to immediately form an association of parishes to represent their concerns in light of the probability that the Diocese of Spokane would file for the reorganization protection of Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

The task of setting up the organization was given to Father Al Grasher, pastor of St. Mary Presentation Parish, Deer Park; Father Leonard Forsmann, pastor of Holy Family Parish, Clarkston; and Father Michael Savelesky, pastor of Spokane’s Assumption Parish.

The pastors also identified the need to find qualified legal counsel to work with the soon-to-be formed association. The task was given to a committee under the leadership of Father James Kuhns, pastor of Spokane’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish.

Convening the St. Augustine gathering as acting chairperson was Father Savelesky, who advised the members that the work of the Association would be consistent with the two primary goals of Bishop Skylstad’s efforts: the just and fair resolution of legitimate sexual abuse claim, and the continuation of the mission of the Church in the Diocese of Spokane.

Concluding the work of his task force, Father Kuhns presented the attorneys who were selected to assist the Association: John Munding from the Spokane firm of Crumb & Munding, and J. Ford Elsaesser, from the Sandpoint-based firm of Elsaesser Jarzabek Anderson Marks Elliot & McHugh. Both attorneys have extensive experience in representing cases before the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The attorneys outlined the Chapter 11 process and pointed out some of the unique ways in which Washington State law could effect the process vis-à-vis the Catholic Bishop of Spokane, a Corporation Sole. Special attention was drawn to the fact that State law recognizes that properties and funds of various entities are held “in trust” by the bishop.

The attorneys noted that those two words could be the focal point of much of the present case now to be presented in federal court. At issue are millions of dollars in parish properties and funds.

The major representation of the Chapter 11 case will be conducted by legal counsel retained by the Diocese of Spokane. As was pointed out with some frequency during the meeting, the Association of Parishes stands in alliance with the legal position of Bishop William Skylstad. The relationship between the Association and the diocese is not adversarial.

Participants left the meeting at St. Augustine with a working draft of the Association’s charter in hand. The charter will serve the Association as an interim working guide until it approves a final version sometime later this month.

The charter specifies the purpose of the Association, stipulates its organizational structure and identifies its decision-making process. Organizers have taken steps to assure that, although it does not have the formality of a set of corporate by-laws, it still is consistent with both State law and the Church’s Code of Canon Law.

Given the need to have an Executive Committee of the Association in place without delay, the Charter already is giving direction. Members of the Committee have been selected in the past two weeks according to its stipulations. Committee members are Father Savelesky, who will serve as Priest Co-Chairperson; Father Kuhns, Father Forsmann; and Father Grasher.

Lay representative members on the Executive Committee are: Bob Hailey, parishioner from St. Mary Presentation in Deer Park, who will serve as the Lay Co-Chairperson; Josh Grant, parishioner from Sacred Heart, Wilbur; Brian Ernst, parishioner from Sacred Heart, Spokane; and Renee Crider, parishioner from St. Catherine, Oakesdale.

Association officials noted that, since both Father Grasher and Bob Hailey are from the same parish, Father Grasher has expressed willingness to step aside in lieu of his parishioner’s legal experience in bankruptcy litigation. His replacement will be determined by his peers in the Association.

Cost for retaining counsel will be borne by the parishes themselves according to a formula to be approved by the Association. Father Savelesky said that the Association itself possesses no authority to bind parishes to any financial obligation.

“The qualified and necessary representation of parish assets in the current situation will come at a measurable expense. As unwelcome as litigation may be, it is a realty which now touches all the parishes. As we said in forming this organization, we regret this additional level of litigation and the expense it means for the people of God.

“We do not have the luxury of sitting back and doing nothing in the present circumstances.”

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