Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Chapter 11 Reorganization: process and responsibility
by Paul McNabb, for the Inland Register
(From the Feb. 3, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Accusations that Bishop William Skylstad, for personal protection, placed the Catholic Diocese of Spokane into Chapter 11 Reorganization are being made without background as to how this man manages the church over which he presides.
His critics say he is trying to hide assets of the diocese and is attempting to avoid the witness stand where he would have to undergo embarrassing testimony about priest abuse of youngsters. Unfortunately, such accusations are made by those who may not realize the difficult discernment and decision-making that preceded the filing. Bishop Skylstad, as head of the diocese, had the final say, of course, but many other voices were in the process.
I have watched him work. This bishop relies heavily on his staff and the consultative groups within the diocese. He operates not from a position of power, but from relationships – with staff, clergy, numerous lay volunteers and thousands of Catholic and non-Catholic men and women with whom he comes in contact as he carries out his ministry. His approach always seems to be that of servant, not master.
Five major offices, with about 40 employees, help him lead the affairs of the church. The diocese has six major boards or committees and a dozen or so advisory groups, and the bishop relates with all of these to help him determine what is best for the diocese and its people. Possible filing for Chapter 11 Reorganization was considered by many of these groups and one in particular had a leading hand in this advice: the Bishop’s Finance Council.
For about 20 years, the bishops of Spokane have relied on the Council as their principal advisory group in the administration of the temporal affairs of the diocese – overseeing budgets, insurance, employee benefits, endowments, a deposit and loan system, and more. About 18 men and women serve on the Council, normally for two terms of three years each. Members come from various areas of the diocese but are not direct representatives of any parish or special interest. The members include accountants, lawyers and persons with various business backgrounds. One member who is a priest is also a certified public accountant.
This fiscal year, the council faced perhaps its most daunting task in recommending Chapter 11 to Bishop Skylstad. Members hoped reasonable settlements with abuse victims who have filed lawsuits would solve the crisis and avoid a series of trials which could give greater advantage to those whose litigation would come first. For if those in initial trials receive large awards, little or no money could be left for those in subsequent trials.
Mediation failed. Trials appeared unfair, assisting only a few victims. Potential jury awards to those seeking tens of millions of dollars would bring financial disaster to a diocese already operating in the red. So, Chapter 11 Reorganization appeared the best avenue to achieving the goal of providing fair, just and equitable treatment for all victims, while allowing the diocese to continue its ministry to 97,000 Catholics in 13 counties of Eastern Washington.
That is how I have come to see it, even though initially, I did not favor Chapter 11. The Bishop’s Finance Council was nearly unanimous in the decision, with one nay vote. Most members felt Chapter 11 was in the best long-term interest of the people of this diocese, not any personal interest our bishop might have.
Bishop Skylstad considered the advice of his Finance Council and that of his other key advisory groups, and, based on that advice, made the decision to file Chapter 11. The filing has made the business of the diocese even more transparent than it has been, since all diocesan financial matters are now set out for public view. In fact, the diocese places on its website all documents it files with the federal court. They can be found at www.dioceseofspokane.org.
The victims still can have their claims heard at a jury trial in court, if they wish. The diocese still pays for counseling.
Now, Finance Council members will help diocesan leaders decide how to continue ministry to the people of Eastern Washington with few funds available. They hope the people of the diocese will contribute generously to this year’s Annual Catholic Appeal, or ACA, which normally accounts for more than a third of money used to operate the diocese.
The accusations leveled against Bishop Skylstad regarding the reasons for filing Chapter 11 are truly speculative, unfair and not based on the facts. He did not make the decision by himself, nor did he make it for himself. He filed Chapter 11 based on the advice and counsel of scores of advisors and counselors. Although feeling strong compassion for those abused by priests, as do members of the council, Bishop Skylstad filed Chapter 11 for the benefit of the Church he loves and has spent his entire life serving.
(Paul McNabb is president of the Bishop’s Finance Council.)