May 05, 2005

A Priest's Story

Opinion Journal

Saturday, April 30, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

Nine years after he had been convicted and sent to prison on charges of sexual assault against a teenage boy, Father Gordon MacRae received a letter in July 2003 from Nixon Peabody LLP, a law firm representing the Diocese of Manchester, N.H. Under the circumstances--he was a priest serving a life term--and after all he had seen, the cordial-sounding inquiry should not perhaps have chilled him as much as it did.

". . . an individual named Brett McKenzie has brought a claim against the Diocese of Manchester seeking a financial settlement as a result of alleged conduct by you," the letter informed him. There was a limited window of opportunity for an agreement that would release him and the diocese from liability. He should understand, the lawyer added, that this request didn't require Father MacRae to acknowledge in any way what Mr. McKenzie had alleged. "Rather, I simply need to know whether you would object to a settlement agreement."

Father MacRae promptly fired a letter off, through his lawyer, declaring he had no idea who Mr. McKenzie was, had never met him, and he was confounded by the request that he assent to any such payment. Neither he nor his lawyers ever received any response. Father MacRae had little doubt that the stranger--like others who had emerged, long after trial, with allegations and attorneys, and, frequently, just-recovered memories of abuse--got his settlement.

By the time he was taken off to prison in 1994, payouts for such claims against priests promised to surpass the rosiest dreams of civil attorneys. The promise was duly realized: In 2003, the Boston Archdiocese paid $85 million for some 54 claimants. The Portland, Ore., Archdiocese, which had already handed over some $53 million, declared bankruptcy in 2004, when confronted with $155 million in new claims. Those of Tucson, Ariz., and Spokane, Wash., soon did the same.

Posted by kshaw at May 5, 2005 02:45 PM