An archdiocese beset by an avalanche of civil lawsuits involving allegations of child abuse might file for bankruptcy to protect itself from financial ruin.
New leaks indicating that Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Catholic Church in Boston, is considering bankruptcy prompted widespread dismay from victims yesterday. Such a drastic step would be unprecedented in the ecclesiastical history of the United States.
"They should either go ahead and declare bankruptcy, or stop talking about it," said Jeffrey Newman of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, which represents about half of the 450 people in Boston suing the Church for failing to discipline priests found to have sexually assaulted minors.
The Archdiocese is at the epicentre of the pedophilia scandal that has engulfed the Catholic establishment in America since the beginning of the year. Experts predict that it could stand to lose about $100m (£64m) if the courts find in favour of all the complaints so far filed against it.
Troubles for the archdiocese mounted last winter when papers released in the trial of one of its priests showed that its hierarchy, including Cardinal Law, had been aware of certain instances of child abuse by priests in the city and had not taken steps to prevent them approaching children.
A bankruptcy filing would amount to an admission of liability by the Church, but it would also assist it in several ways. All the suits now before the courts would be suspended and no new filings would be allowed. The existing 450 actions against the Church would later be lumped together into a single class action suit, which would make an out-of-court settlement more likely.
Such a move would also offer some legal and financial respite for Cardinal Law, who all year has resisted calls for his resignation. He no longer would be obliged to appear for court depositions in each of the cases. And it would spell frustration for plaintiffs' lawyers, who have argued that he should be forced to contribute some of his personal wealth to any financial settlements. The lawyers also claim that, by making public its consideration of a bankruptcy filing, the Church is trying to scare plaintiffs into accepting lesser settlements quickly.
"At the very least, it's rank intimidation," Mr Newman said, before adding. "No amount of manipulation or grandstanding will affect what we do."
The archdiocese insists that it is committed to giving fair settlements to all of the victims. Cardinal Law has repeatedly apologised for the Church's mistakes. "We pray for the victims of this crime, this sin," he said during his homily on Sunday at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Donna Morrissey, said no decision had been made on bankruptcy. But she added: "That being said, we have to consider all of our options."
While a $100m bill would be steep, the archdiocese is said to have property assets in the region of $1.3bn (£835m) Many of the victims argue that if Boston is unable to raise the money to pay the victims, the wider Catholic Church, including the Vatican itself, should be called upon to help fund compensation.
"No one can argue that the Boston Archdiocese is a church unto itself," said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Wendy Murphy, a high- profile Boston lawyer and former city prosecutor who now takes on sexual abuse cases, also expressed disdain at the latest manoeuvre.
"Bankruptcy is a discreet legal and mechanical option that treats victims purely as numbers on a spreadsheet," she said.
"This case is about lives damaged and destroyed by systemic abuses and we will only learn why these things happened and reach some moral accountability if the truth comes out through trials."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies