Sunday, November 22, 2009

WILMINGTON, Del. | The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington is obligated to pay retirement benefits to six priests who are confirmed pedophiles, church officials argued in a bankruptcy court filing seeking permission to keep making the payments.

After filing for Chapter 11 protection last month, the diocese agreed not to make payments to priests accused of sexual abuse without court approval. That agreement was made after attorneys raised objections for alleged abuse victims who now sit on a creditors committee.

In a filing submitted late last week, attorneys for the diocese now seek authorization to provide pensions, housing costs and medical coverage to six confirmed child abusers. They cited an obligation to care for retired clergy, including priests dismissed from public ministry and facing laicization, or defrocking.

“Only the Vatican has the power to laicize clergy,” the diocese said. “Thus, while several priests have been dismissed from the public ministry and have laicization proceedings pending against them, for the time being they remain clergy whom the debtor supports, and must continue to support.”

The motion also seeks permission to keep paying benefits to another priest who has been accused of sex abuse, though the claims have not been substantiated. He still has authority to serve as a priest.

The diocese argues that pension payments would not be taken from funds that might be used to pay creditors, including abuse victims waiting for settlement payments.

James Stang, an attorney for the creditors committee, described the filing as “outrageous.”

Officials with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, could not recall a similar motion in the six other bankruptcies involving Catholic dioceses in the U.S. The group also noted that the Wilmington diocese is paying a public relations firm a minimum of $100,000 for bankruptcy-related work.

“It’s morally wrong for a church official to cry poverty and then pay six figures to a PR firm. And it’s morally wrong for a church official to put helping child predators ahead of helping child victims,” said Barbara Dorris, national outreach director for SNAP.

The diocese wants to continue paying medical coverage for former priest Francis DeLuca, 80, who was removed from public ministry in 1993 and defrocked last year after serving a jail term in New York for repeatedly abusing his grandnephew.

The diocese said it has provided DeLuca “charity” since he was defrocked in the form of a $1,000 monthly allowance and medical coverage. The allowance has been terminated, but the diocese still wants to provide medical coverage.

“Corporal works of mercy such as the provision of charity to Mr. DeLuca are fundamental to the Christian faith, and there is no ‘bad person’ exception to Catholic charity,” attorneys for the diocese wrote.

According to the court filing, 29 retired diocesan priests receive pensions at a cost of about $55,000 per month, and retired priests ineligible for the pension plan are provided “sustenance.”

Among the priests receiving pension and health care benefits are John Sarros and Douglas Dempster, both of whom were identified by the diocese in 2006 as having substantiated abuse allegations against them. The diocese also pays about $4,000 a month to house Sarros in an assisted-living home.

The three other priests with substantiated abuse allegations - Joseph McGovern, Charles Wiggins and Kenneth Martin - have received cash payments and medical coverage. The cash payments have been halted until they prove financial need, but the diocese wants to continue providing medical coverage.

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