Religion in the News

The Associated Press
Friday, February 9, 2007; 7:00 AM

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport is in bankruptcy.

Its headquarters will go on the auction block this spring. The bishop's home also is going to be sold, and the diocese has paid $9 million to resolve cases in which 37 men say they were sexually abused as boys by priests.

But for all the hardship the diocese is undergoing as result of molestation claims, bankruptcy may be better than what the church in Iowa could have faced _ the civil trial of a former bishop from a neighboring diocese.

The case of retired Sioux City Bishop Lawrence Soens vividly illustrates the trade-offs at play when dioceses make decisions about handling the national abuse crisis, which is still spinning out five years after a Boston case became a flashpoint for the problem.

"When the bankruptcy was declared ... it was like hitting a brick wall for so many who were following the Soens case and looking for answers," said Dorothy Whiston, a coordinator of Concerned Catholics of the Davenport Diocese, a group of parishioners and priests focused on church reform. "And for laity, most of them just don't want to hear any more about priests or Bishop Soens."

Soens' legal troubles began in 2005 when the first of three sex abuse lawsuits was filed against him for his actions in the 1960s, when he was the principal of Regina High School in Iowa City, part of the Davenport Diocese.

Fifteen plaintiffs _ all male _ stepped forward.

Details of their claims are similar: Under the guise of discipline, Soens brought students into his office, where he rubbed and sometimes pinched their crotches, according to documents filed in the cases. The students also accused him of frequently pinching and twisting their nipples, an activity described in court documents as "purpling."

Soens denies the charges, and a diocese internal investigation into a complaint filed in 2002 found that while Soens' behavior may have been inappropriate, it was not sexual in nature.

"Some actions may have occurred which would not have been appropriate," the report stated. "However, in looking at the definition of sexual abuse in the (policy), we questioned whether any of this conduct described would be for the adult's gratification."

Soens contends the lawsuits should be dismissed based on an Iowa law that shields school officials from liability five years after a student leaves the school. A ruling is pending, but even if the lawsuits are dropped, his lawyer said Soens' clerical career has been ruined.

Soens voluntarily withdrew from public ministry more than a year ago, his name was removed from an award given annually to outstanding youth and he is rarely seen at church functions these days. He retired from the Sioux City Diocese in 1998.

"The damage has been done as far as his reputation and all the good he has done," said Timothy Bottaro, Soens' attorney. "There have been a lot of testimonials given that talk about him being an entirely different person back in that time in Iowa City. But there are just as many people, former students, staff, secretaries ... who claim none of those things happened."

There also are no known allegations of sexual misconduct during Soens' 15-year career as bishop.

Yet the diocese's decision to file for Chapter 11 protection in October came just days before the first of Soens' trials was to begin. It led the case to be suspended indefinitely and freed the diocese as a defendant in the suit.

That upset parishioners and victims' advocates, who have written letters and publicly protested the absence of any disciplinary action against Soens.

In a letter published in the church newspaper in December, current Sioux City Bishop Walker Nickless said he was shocked by the nasty communication he's received about Soens. Nickless called for patience and compassion.

"Bishop Soens has suffered much because of the issues he has to deal with concerning the allegations made against him," Nickless wrote. "I think it is unfair to assume someone is guilty before they have had their day in court."

But, victims said, bankruptcy postponed that day in court _ and the church is responsible for taking that step.

"Why not have a church trial, or canonical trial before a church review board?" asked Craig Levien, an attorney for some of Soens' alleged victims. "The abuse survivors just want accountability. The fact that the diocese has taken the road to bankruptcy does not diminish their desire to make the school and Bishop Soens accountable."

By becoming the fourth U.S. diocese to file for bankruptcy _ joining Portland, Ore., Spokane, Wash., and Tucson, Ariz. _ the diocese can settle all pending sex abuse claims at once and spread settlement dollars equally. The Tucson Diocese has emerged from bankruptcy; proposed settlements in Spokane and Portland are awaiting approval.

"It's really a fairer way of treating all the cases and the victims than simply those with the best and fastest lawyers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of several books on the Catholic church.

Bishop William Franklin said as the Davenport Diocese filed for bankruptcy that it was the best way to compensate victims and allow the church to continue its mission.

Bankruptcy also means the diocese _ no longer a defendant in the Soens cases _ can avoid being confronted in court with potentially embarrassing facts, missteps or documents related to its past handling of abusive priests.

Victims can negotiate to make diocesan personnel files and other documents part of the settlement. One of the lawsuits against Soens was dismissed last year after the plaintiff died, leaving two suits involving 14 men.

In 2005, the Davenport Diocese reported that it had settled a different claim against Soens for $20,000. The diocese has not provided any details of the settlement.


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