A church purified and humbled, yet more resolved to carry on Christ’s work—that is how I would describe the Diocese of Tucson as it emerges from the process of Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy reorganization. The bankruptcy process, ending with a plan of reorganization confirmed by the judge who guided the case, has been a learning experience for me, for the parties involved in our case and, perhaps, for others. Abuse of a child by anyone, let alone a priest, is an atrocity, a crime and a sin. Yet priests did abuse children, and regrettable mistakes and failures in judgment were made in handling these crimes and those who committed them. We have lived with this reality for some time in the Diocese of Tucson. The scandals here shocked the Catholic people and shook their trust, discouraged the clergy and called into question the church’s credibility.
The settlement in 2002 of 11 lawsuits over sexual abuse by priests had placed our mission diocese in a precarious financial situation, and the filing of more than 30 additional lawsuits over the next two years made the situation dire. On Sept. 20, 2004, after an agonizing consultation that lasted over a year, I filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in the name of the Diocese of Tucson.
It was not a universally popular decision. Some saw the filing as an effort by the diocese to shirk responsibility; others saw it as a way for the church to further victimize those who had been hurt; still others felt it was a ploy to protect diocesan assets.
I made the decision in an effort to heal the past. I firmly believed that faced with inadequate resources to resolve all claims, the bankruptcy court would provide the best forum for fairly and equitably compensating all those harmed. I hoped that the objectivity of the court would be a helpful alternative to the previous efforts to resolve these situations that had become so contentious.
Filing also seemed to be the only way to gather all claims together and allow the diocese to respond to all victims. Even so, the risks were great. I understood that there was every possibility that the process of Chapter 11 as a path to healing could break down and evolve into a series of contentious battles and mounting legal fees that would serve only to deplete the diocesan assets that could be given to those who had been harmed.
After less than 10 months, the bankruptcy case of the Diocese of Tucson has been resolved with a consensual plan. This came about because all parties—including the judge, the lawyers for the plaintiff/victims in the lawsuits, lawyers for the diocese and lawyers appointed by the court—kept their eyes fixed on the goal of fair compensation of victims. This consensual plan is allowing victims to feel they can move on with their lives, and it is allowing the diocese to continue its mission—purified and humbled, yet even more resolute in its commitment to carry on its work.
Emerging from the Chapter 11 process, I would identify four primary lessons I have learned from the experience:
• Negotiation can lead to results that leave all parties feeling good about what occurred. It can work.
• The time of the “lone ranger” in ministry is gone. Those ordained need to work together, to pray together, to hold each other accountable and to work collaboratively with others in ministry.
• “Ma and Pa” management in our dioceses must go. The church needs to be more responsible and more accountable. Dioceses need help to do that.
• We need to rediscover again our spiritual center.
The Value of Negotiation
Two striking moments occurred on the day the judge confirmed the Diocese of Tucson’s plan of reorganization.
The first came when the judge called for closing arguments from lawyers representing different parties in the case. One of the lawyers stood before the judge and with deep emotion, holding back tears, expressed his joy that this unique situation involving human pain and suffering could come to a positive conclusion in which all felt justice had been served. He said this was a case unlike any he had experienced in more than 50 years of bankruptcy work. Another lawyer, one who had had serious misgivings about the proceedings early on, rose to tell the judge he now fully supported the plan. He observed that “a spirit had moved this along and helped get this resolved.” I wanted to say, “That’s my line.”
As the other lawyers spoke, they too expressed support of the plan and asked the judge to confirm it. They also expressed their belief that justice was being served through the proposed settlement. I feel it was that unanimity by the lawyers that contributed to the judge’s ruling from the bench to confirm the plan.
The second striking moment of the day came during a joint news conference after the confirmation. I sat next to several victims and their lawyers. Together we expressed confidence that the plan confirmed by the judge would fairly and equitably compensate those who had been harmed. The atmosphere was collaborative, not contentious; the spirit cooperative, not adversarial.
For many years, I taught conflict management skills at Loyola University Chicago and at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. The theory of conflict management is that beneath positions there are common hopes and values that, if clarified, can move people from opposing positions to realize a collaborative agreement. While the theory makes sense, the reality is that processes often break down, because people repetitively assert opposing positions and stay stuck on those positions. That leads nowhere. This could have happened in our case, but thanks to the persistent efforts of the lawyers, the judge and other parties, the goal of a consensual plan to compensate those harmed moved the process through the minefields that could very well have destroyed it.
The plaintiff lawyer and some victims said at the time of confirmation that they were wrong in their fear that filing for Chapter 11 was a ploy by the diocese, an abandoning of responsibility. That was not what had happened and not what they had experienced. The process became a way to compensate fairly and equitably all who had been harmed. It was then that I sensed justice had been served.
Negotiation can work if people keep their eyes fixed on the goal and they stay at the task.
While working in the seminary, I became acquainted with many diocesan presbyterates served by the seminary. I realized that priests do not easily get along or work well together.
Most presbyterates have a core of priests who are friends and who enjoy one another’s company, sometimes even working and planning together. But most presbyterates are made up for the most part of priests who, for various reasons, do things on their own. Some priests bear grudges and harbor anger or resentment for things that have happened to them. Some priests are jealous of others’ success. Priests can feel unappreciated. In smaller dioceses spread over large geographic areas, priests can experience isolation that only intensifies the loneliness they feel.
The Chapter 11 experience has convinced me that greater attention needs to be given to priests. They deserve that attention for the hard and important work they do for the church.
Priests can no longer go it alone; who we are as priests and what we do as priests affects other priests and all in the church. Priests’ ministry will be strengthened if they commit themselves to a common vision of their mission in the diocese. Bishops need to find frequent opportunities to communicate with priests to affirm their work and encourage their efforts.
Sometimes, genuine care and concern for priests lead bishops to confront and challenge uncooperative, disruptive and divisive behavior in priests. That is difficult to do. No one enjoys negative feelings or situations. But left unchallenged, problems do not disappear; they intensify and become even more troubling and destructive.
Priests need to learn how to pray together, to share with one another their experiences, positive and negative, to build support groups, like Jesus Caritas, in which they can form bonds with one another and with Christ. Continuing education efforts need to be developed that address the age-specific needs of priests. Priests need updating and to be involved in ongoing development in the four areas of seminary formation: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral.
‘Ma and Pa’ Organization
The church defines itself as a community and resists being described as a business. I agree with that, but being a community does not entail being irresponsible, unaccountable or just “winging it.” Community includes running a good business; more, it means being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us.
In canon law, parishes and dioceses are encouraged to have consultative bodies, especially in financial matters. Some still do not. That needs to change. Parishes and dioceses need to report their financial status to the community clearly and comprehensively, yet they sometimes do not.
As fearful as I was at first about the oversight of the court in our Chapter 11 case, it has been helpful for us to be subjected to scrutiny by the court in our financial reporting and operations. We have had to make changes in how our deposit and loan fund was being administered and in the way restricted gifts were being documented. We have had to look at the need to incorporate our parishes separately in order to reflect better both canon law and the way we view the identity of parishes.
It has likewise been helpful to undergo outside audits regarding our compliance with the Dallas charter. Our efforts to achieve full compliance on policies to provide safe environments for children continue, but it has not been an easy transformation. In particular, record-keeping has not been one of our strengths. We have learned painfully the problems that can result from poor record-keeping and sloppy administration.
Efficiency, responsibility and accountability on the parish and diocesan level are overriding goals that have become more pressing because of our filing for Chapter 11 reorganization.
Laypeople, with their diverse skills and backgrounds, are waiting to be called upon more often by the diocese and by their own parishes. They can be of immense help in providing sound advice and technical know-how. That has been my experience throughout this process.
Finding a Spiritual Center
Some have commented that the sexual abuse crisis and scandals have bankrupted the church. For sure, it has cost millions of dollars, perhaps even a billion.
But the church is not bankrupt, literally or figuratively. The greatest assets of the church are the message of Christ and the sacramental life, no less powerful and no less needed than ever before. This spiritual center needs to be discovered anew.
The priests and people in our diocese have been through a lot, embarrassed by the abusive behavior of some priests, troubled by the slow and ineffective responses of the diocese in the past, but this has not dampened their desire for Christ and his message.
People still come to church as much as before, maybe even more. They still listen attentively to homilies, hoping to find some meaning to take home. They are still fed by the Eucharist. They still seek to imitate Christ.
The most humbling moments for me in this past year have been the occasions when someone made an appointment to see me not to complain or to offer advice but only to pray with me for our diocese. Our diocese had to sell all of the property it was holding for future growth. That is painful for a growing diocese like ours. This diocese finds itself in serious indebtedness and will be hard-pressed financially for some time to come. But the faith of people, like those who came to my office, prods me to refocus our efforts to rediscover our spiritual center. That is what we have to offer people.
This past year has found me praying more, asking others for their prayers and coming to realize even more that I need God’s grace. He alone reconciles. The lawyer’s observation that the spirit was working in this case reflects what I have come to realize.
I will never forget the pain I saw in the faces of victims with whom I spoke or the disillusionment of victims’ parents who shared their shock and disbelief at what took place. The motto on my coat of arms reads, “Justice begets peace.” I pray that the resolution of this Chapter 11 reorganization has brought justice and that it will lead to peace.
Our Rock and Our Salvation
While this past year has been difficult, we have learned much. Now we must collaboratively draw upon the gifts of all in the church, unifying our presbyterate, working alongside with and pulling in the same direction as the deacons, religious and laity of the diocese.
In natural disasters and other forms of tragedy, when you lose everything, you realize that you still have what matters most: your faith, your life, your friends.
That is what the Diocese of Tucson will depend upon. We now need to heal those who have been hurt and center our lives on Christ, who alone is our rock and our salvation.