Bishop Salvatore Matano of Burlington has decided to place the state’s 128 parishes in charitable trusts in order to shield them from the cost of 19 priest misconduct lawsuits against the diocese.
His decision drew protests from the national lay organization Voice of the Faithful, which called the action "fraudulent, deceitful and irresponsible."
The bishop defended his decision to the Rutland Herald, saying that it was a solution that accommodated both the child abuse victims and Vermont's 118,000 practicing Catholics.
"I want to reach out to victims, but I also have to be conscious of the people in the pews," the bishop told the newspaper. "It's certainly just to ask the church to be accountable, but is it just to destroy parishes, schools and other agencies of care to do so?"
The bishop said he placed local parishes in charitable trusts to reassure Vermont Catholics who fear they'll lose churches and schools built by their ancestors because of the lawsuits. Bishop Matano said the trusts are "a perfectly legal way to protect these institutions that are communities of faith.” He also wanted to ensure that only diocesan assets would be used to settle these cases.
The diocese faces 14 lawsuits against Fr. Edward Paquette, the subject of the recent $965,000 settlement; one lawsuit each involving former Vermont priest James Dunn; James McShane, the subject of a $120,000 settlement in 2004; George Paulin, the subject of a $20,000 settlement in 2003; and two cases against Alfred Willis, the subject of a $150,000 settlement in 2004, reported the Herald.
The bishop said the diocese is currently in financial straits. The financial statement for the year that ended June 30, 2005 reported a $127,947 deficit on annual spending of $8.2 million.
That debt ballooned at least tenfold when the church took out a loan last month to cover the record $965,000 settlement in the first of 20 priest misconduct lawsuits against it.
Bishop Matano said specific figures outlining that debt for the current fiscal year would be available in the next financial report.