Settlement reached on remaining sex abuse cases in Spokane

SPOKANE — Parishioners of Catholic churches in Spokane are being asked to contribute another $1.5 million toward a broad legal settlement to help resolve clergy sex abuse claims that have dogged the diocese for a decade.

The Spokesman-Review reported Wednesday it was the second settlement in five years that has been billed as ending the bankruptcy of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane.

A letter written by Spokane Bishop Blase Cupich and distributed to parishioners on Sunday sought to assure churchgoers that the threat of foreclosure had passed.

The $1.5 million was far less than initially feared to clear up lingering bankruptcy issues, including more than two dozen unresolved claims filed by former Morning Star Boys’ Ranch residents who said they were abused at the home for troubled boys.

Cupich said now that the cases have been settled, he will review the accusations of abuse against Morning Star’s longtime director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, and also refer the matters to a diocesan board that studies such allegations to determine whether they are credible.

“It’s up to us, now, to make that determination, which we will do in a respectful way,” Cupich said. “Father Joe has not been formally withdrawn from ministry. And I am going to make sure that I act responsibly in all of this.”

Weitensteiner has been at the center of the Morning Star abuse accusations since the issue erupted seven years ago. He had denied the accusations.

A jury ruled against one alleged victim two years ago, handing the ranch and Weitensteiner a legal victory.

That case also helped set the stage for mediation.

Cupich took over as bishop in September 2010 and within months, had orchestrated the beginnings of mediation under the guidance of U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Oregon. Hogan was assisted by Sandpoint bankruptcy attorney Ford Elsaesser, who advised Cupich, and Dillon Jackson, a Seattle attorney who helped coordinate and advise the plaintiffs.

Hogan brought a reputation for success. He mediated an end to the bankruptcy settlement of the Archdiocese of Portland years ago and has honed an expertise in resolving child sex abuse cases.

The settlement amounts in the Morning Star cases have not been publicly released, but the Morning Star and six insurance companies all contributed to a fund to settle the cases.

Cupich said that having “a fresh set of eyes” on the legal problems aided the effort.

“Maybe that newness provided some energy and another chance,” he said. “There was a lot of complexity and moving parts involved. In the end we needed to work together as adults.”

The diocese initially settled its bankruptcy case in 2007, pooling together insurance policies, parishioner gifts and cash from the sale of miscellaneous assets and property. The $48 million sum was divided among nearly 180 victims of clergy sex abuse from decades ago and lawyer fees.

It was supposed to mark the end of the case.

But the settlement fund was drained when some victims were allowed to file late claims, sparking worries that some parishes might be subject to foreclosure to settle the cases.

Hogan noted that the initial settlement may have been overly optimistic.

“Probably all the sides were a little too confident about there not being future claims when they reached the first settlement,” he said.

Hogan will now review any new claims to determine validity and a potential award.

In his letter to parishioners, Cupich wrote: “This is an important and significant turning point in a very sad chapter of our diocesan history. We can never forget the harm done to children, who deserved better from the Church and her ministers.”

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