By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Parishes and Catholic schools are owned by the archbishop of Agana, a federal judge on Guam ruled today in a landmark decision that ultimately lifted the disputed properties’ shield from claims against the church.
Following last month's court proceedings that heard 21 witnesses, Chief Federal Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood paved the way for claimants' access to the disputed assets.
The judge affirmed her partial ruling last year, in which she rejected the church’s argument that the assets of parishes and schools were held in trust and thus free from being tapped to pay the claims of survivors of clergy abuse and other creditors.
“Testimony was consistent throughout the seven-day trial that the parishes and schools are in fact, ‘one body’ with the archdiocese,” the court said.
The court ruled in favor of the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors, which was tasked with designating ‘non-essential’ assets of the archdiocese for possible payments to sex abuse claimants.
The church faced civil suits from nearly 280 individuals who alleged they were raped and molested by priests and other members of the clergy from the 1950s to as late as 2013. The archdiocese, which has filed a bankruptcy case, has proposed a $36 million payment plan.
In anticipation of the huge amount needed to compensate the claims, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2019, listing $22 million worth of real property assets and $45 million in liabilities. In the bankruptcy filing, the church left out the parishes and Catholic schools from the list of its assets.
The archdiocese owns 10 Catholic schools and 40 parishes around the island.
“In line with Guam’s corporation sole statute, the archbishop controls the properties of the entire archdiocese,” the court said.
Tydingco-Gatewood cited previous statements pointing to the church’s ownership of properties in question.
“For example, prior to the bankruptcy filing, Mr. Christopher Felix testified that this entailed looking into all assets of the archdiocese, including the parishes and schools, and categorizing what are non-essential properties for possible sale,” the decision reads.
At the trial, Father Paul Gofigan testified that while pastors could not sell their parish properties, “the archbishop ‘can do whatever he wants.'"
The trial determined that the subject properties have been transferred to the church as nonreturnable donations.
The court also cited Archbishop Michael Byrnes' testimony "that he has no intention of returning or transferring any properties to any schools or parishes."
“Defendant does not hold the parishes and schools in a resulting trust. Accordingly, the disputed properties are property of debtor-defendant’s bankruptcy estate," the court said.
Following the conclusion of last month's trial, Byrnes reiterated his apologies to the survivors of clergy abuse.
"I especially want to express my appreciation and gratitude to Mr. Leo Tudela, the chairman and representative of the sexual abuse victims committee," Byrnes said in a statement. ."We were all inspired by the extraordinary courage of Mr. Tudela and his heartfelt call for everyone to work together for the good of those who have suffered excruciatingly from clergy sexual abuse in our Church."
"I echo my words to Mr. Tudela and all the victims of abuse during my time on the witness stand last Friday. I am sorry. As the archbishop of Agaña, on behalf of the entire Catholic Church on Guam, I sincerely apologize for the grave harm members of the Church inflicted on you in past years. I pray for each of you every day," Byrnes said.