November 4, 2005


What Catholic dioceses can learn
from the experience of bankruptcy

Three U.S. dioceses have been forced to file for bankruptcy reorganization as a result of the burden of financial claims from victims of sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of Portland and the Diocese of Spokane (both in Oregon) and the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., each decided to take this very serious action in order to compensate the valid claims of victims and, at the same time, continue the mission and ministries of the Church in their respective regions.

What impact has this decision had on these dioceses? And what can other dioceses learn from their experiences?

In a recent letter to all members of his diocese, Spokane Bishop William Skylstad reaffirmed the commitment made by all the U.S. bishops to “transparency and openness” and to “restoring the confidence” of the Catholic people and of society at large. The Diocese of Spokane is dealing with a special problem—a ruling by the local bankruptcy judge that would include all parishes, schools and other Catholic institutions as assets that can be used to satisfy legal claims. This means that, if ordered to do so by the court, the bishop would have to liquidate these assets and use any funds generated by their sale for settlement purposes.

Following Church law (and the diocese’s understanding of Washington trust law), Bishop Skylstad strongly asserts that he does not own these properties: “The diocese does not own the parishes. They do not belong to me. I can no more sell parishes than I can choose the house or lake cabin property of a parishioner and sell those properties to satisfy claims.”

The bishop’s letter aims to assure Catholics in his diocese that the Church’s ministry will continue in spite of these difficult legal, financial and pastoral problems. “Our parishes remain vibrant; our parishioners are involved; our staffs continue to provide leadership and facilitate discipleship across the diocese. … Although the judge’s ruling is a disappointment, it is not the end of the Catholic Church in eastern Washington.” Whatever happens, Bishop Skylstad insists, the ministry of Christ will continue.

An article by Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas in the Sept. 26 issue of America magazine outlines four primary lessons that he says emerged from his diocese’s Chapter 11 process:

• Negotiation entered into in good faith can work—provided that all parties concentrate on the goal of “fair compensation of victims.”

• More than ever before, Church leaders need to be collaborative—“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 accountable” in its fiscal management and in its decision-making.

• “We need to rediscover again our spiritual center.”

Working together in good faith, dioceses need to be better managed, but they also need to be “spiritually centered.” As Bishop Kicanas sees it, this dual challenge—maintaining both a clear spiritual focus and sound fiscal management—is the challenge (and opportunity) facing all Catholic dioceses today.

The Church in central and southern Indiana is blessed with the excellent collaborative leadership and strong fiscal management of Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein and his strong team of clergy and lay leaders. During the past decade, this archdiocese has faced a number of difficult pastoral and financial challenges. Some mistakes have been made along the way, but, overall, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has emerged with a stronger focus on the Church’s mission and a more consistent emphasis on the responsible stewardship of all God’s gifts.

In their 1992 pastoral letter, Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response, the Catholic bishops of the United States committed all dioceses, parishes and Catholic organizations in our country to observance of “the most stringent legal, ethical and fiscal standards.” To be transparent and accountable is not an option today. It is the challenge (and the opportunity) faced by every individual, and every faith community, who seeks to imitate Christ, the Good Steward.

Let’s pray that Church leaders everywhere will find the support and encouragement they need to face the challenges of our day and to grow in their understanding and practice of stewardship.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.) †


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