Diocese may need to sell assets to meet claims

Wed, Mar 3, 2010, 00:00

THE DIOCESE of Ferns says it may be forced to sell properties if it cannot raise enough donations from parishioners to fund compensation arising from abuse claims.

The Bishop of Ferns Dr Denis Brennan told parishioners on Monday night it has had to pay more than €8 million to settle 48 civil actions, while a further 13 actions were pending.

Other dioceses such as Dublin, which has paid out €11 million in abuse settlements, are also facing severe financial challenges. This diocese has settled 99 actions, and a further 34 are pending.

Dr Brennan said a request for financial help from parishioners was not about sharing blame, but about “asking for help to fulfil a God-given responsibility”.

He said people who suffered abuse were not the cause of the diocese’s problems. Instead, the actions of “individual perpetrators, along with mismanagement, poor understanding and/or lack of resolve” were to blame.

“The Diocese of Ferns has been on a road involving the settlement of claims for 15 years now. It has been very much a team effort – various administrations and personnel, local diocesan and national church funding,” Dr Brennan said.

“Up to 80 per cent of the road of justice has been travelled. As we look to complete this road, it will be necessary to invite the parishes to become part of the process financially.”

The diocese estimates it will need to raise €60,000 a year from its 100,000 parishioners over a period of 20 years. An alternative plan is to sell assets and properties, including the Bishop’s Palace in Wexford, St Peter’s College Seminary, or agricultural land on the Rosslare road. It insists that none of the money from weekly collections will go towards settlement costs.

Diocese spokesman Fr John Carroll said yesterday that the bishop’s request was about sparking a debate on the issue. “This is more of an internal discussion within the church,” he said. “We’ve had people come forward with offers of help, but maybe there is a better way, like selling off property. We want to open up that discussion.” He confirmed that of the €8 million paid in compensation, about €5 million came from the Stewardship Fund, set up by Irish bishops.

The diocese has paid the balance through its savings, remortgaging the bishop’s residence, and raising a €1.8 million loan. It has paid out a further €2.1 million on legal fees for abuse inquiries, and €836,000 towards the treatment of paedophile priests.

In addition to Ferns, other Catholic dioceses may be forced to take similar actions to fund major compensation bills arising from abuse claims. While many dioceses have insurance policies to indemnify against abuse claims, these typically relate to future claims and do not cover cases which were known about in the past. In addition, most of the Stewardship Funds, which have helped fund abuse settlements across the Catholic Church in Ireland, are no longer available for abuse cases.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said the finances of the Dublin Archdiocese are under severe pressure as a result of compensation and the economic downturn. Church collections are responsible for 70 per cent of the annual income in Dublin. However, money from the sale of assets and investment income has fallen sharply.