In the Judas Crisis, Catholics should note British Petroleum’s full page ads exposing fraud and false claims following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
No, I haven’t turned to the Dark Side of the Force or descended into the sewers of cyberspace. The “F-word” in question is “fraud,” and there is plenty of it. In a recent letter, a TSW reader wrote that she loves our posts when they are inspiring – she singled out our “Third Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award” – but added that she has also come to appreciate posts that expose fraud and some of the inconvenient truth behind our scandals. “As depressing as some of this is,” she wrote, “Ignorance isn’t bliss. We need to know about it.”
The tides of war, tragedy, and scandal have overtaken the news since then, but just about everyone in the free and thinking world remembers those round-the-clock TV images of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a broken pipe that defied daily efforts to cap it. It was the result of an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform under contract with British Petroleum. After a month of daily images of millions of gallons of crude oil engulfing the Gulf, not many Americans looked kindly upon BP. Like the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002, BP found itself in the bull’s eye of a moral panic.
That camera footage was also a tort lawyer’s midsummer night’s dream. The image of spewing oil was an icon for the environmental disaster in the Gulf, and fueled a public relations nightmare for BP. The very real damages suffered by very real victims combined with the nation’s moral outrage for a perfect storm of indefensible lawsuits and mediated settlements.
In the three years since, British Petroleum has spent more than $14 billion on the response and clean-up of Gulf waters and seashore, and more than $11 billion to settle over 300,000 claims for damages brought by individuals and businesses, most of whom suffered real losses and devastating hardships.
But not all. Among those claims, investigators have found an alarming amount of fraud, so much fraud that the company was forced to look more carefully at every claim. BP’s recent full-page ads have described these fraud attempts in terms that should sound familiar to Catholics who have been paying attention to some of the published reports at the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, The Media Report, and These Stone Walls. A recent BP ad in The Wall Street Journal (September 5, 2013) quoted Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce describing the settlement process at BP:
“Enter a parade of trial lawyers, a who’s who of some of the nation’s wealthiest lawyers. They smell big bucks and want a piece of the action . . . . The result is that thousands of claimants that suffered no losses are coming forward, obtaining outrageous windfalls, and making a mockery of what was intended to be a fair and honest settlement process.” (Thomas J. Donohue, The Weekly Standard, July 8, 2013)
Jay Timmons, President of the National Association of Manufacturers, added another point that should sound familiar to informed Catholics:
“BP’s settlement has spawned a cottage industry. Trial lawyers are actively recruiting businesses to make claims against BP . . . . What’s happening on the Gulf isn’t isolated to BP. All manufacturers have a stake, because next time it may be one of us in trial lawyers’ cross hairs . . . . “ (Jay Timmons, The Washington Times, July 8, 2013)
More recently, former FBI Director Louis Freeh was commissioned to conduct an independent investigation of fraud and misconduct in the Gulf settlement claims process. Among other things, he found that lawyers engaged in pervasive improper and unethical conduct, and corrupted the claims process to enrich themselves. British Petroleum has made the Louis Freeh Report available to the public at www.FreehGulfReport.org.
A FIELD OF DREAMS IN IOWA
Back in April, I wrote a post for TSW entitled, “Why the Catholic Abuse Narrative Needs a Fraud Task Force.” It described some of the fraud attempts British Petroleum has uncovered and exposed. On the same day BP ran one of its full-page ads, The Wall Street Journal, (August 29), also published a news brief about a new round of claims and settlements in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa. $5.2 million was just paid to 26 people claiming abuse by 10 priests – almost all of the priests are deceased – alleged to have occurred 30 to 50 years ago. This was the fourth round of settlements in Dubuque since 2006 for a total of $17.2 million.
Remember my recent post, “News on Sale”? It was about the diminishment of much of the mainstream news media, and especially the erosion of the media’s ability to act as a watchdog for society. I quoted a noted career newspaperman who wrote that the role of responsible bloggers is to hold the rest of the media accountable to the truth.
So let’s do that. It’s a symptom of the news media’s erosion that it reports on stories such as that settlement in the Archdiocese of Dubuque without ever asking any of the necessary questions that would arise in any thinking person. Where were these 26 accusers – mostly men now in their 50s and 60s – during all the previous settlements? Where were they when the national story broke in 2002? Does anyone really believe that every two years since 2006 another 26 middle-aged men in Iowa suddenly recall being sexually abused by priests forty to fifty years earlier?
Iowa isn’t the only field of dreams for tort lawyers who usually glean up to forty percent or more of such settlements – sometimes for doing little more than writing a few letters demanding money. The math tells the story best. Out of that $17.2 million in settlements from the Archdiocese of Dubuque, about $7 million has gone to the tort lawyers. One such lawyer – now serving time in prison with me – described the mediated settlement process in my own diocese, the Diocese of Manchester: “We provide the train. Anyone who wants to make money need only get aboard.”
At his A Ram in the Thicket blog, writer Ryan MacDonald recently posted an article entitled, “In Fr Gordon MacRae Case, Whack-A-Mole Justice Holds Court.” He analyzed the Bishop-Accountability website that has published a diocese-by-diocese, priest-by-priest description of every claim of abuse – proven or not, corroborated or not – that has resulted in a settlement for alleged abuse. The site is set up and maintained for the stated purpose of serving as a clearinghouse for the news media. The Media Report has examined that claim, and found it scurrilous.
WHERE’S LOUIS FREEH WHEN WE NEED HIM?
I want to tell you a story that gets lost in the shuffle as we focus on the claims for which I am in prison. One day in 2004, after Bishop-Accountability published the files of scores of accused priests handed over by my diocese, I was awaiting a medical appointment in the prison infirmary. In the crowded waiting room, I sat next to another priest of my diocese in prison for accusations in the mid-1990s. He told me that he received a letter the previous day from a church lawyer asking him to cooperate in a settlement of two new claims brought by two men the priest said he had never met or even heard of. In the end, however, he remained silent about the settlement, believing our diocese was acting in his best interest.
The day after this 2004 conversation, I received a letter from the same lawyer for my diocese. He asked my cooperation to settle two new claims against me from 30 years ago, also brought by two men I had never met or heard of. The same New Hampshire contingency lawyer brought the settlement demands in all the above claims.
It turned out this was a class-action mediated settlement demand that was never even filed in a court. The lawyer simply gathered the names of dozens of adult accusers, the names of the priests they wanted to accuse, and roughly the time periods alleged, and then submitted them en masse for settlement. He had a similar mass settlement two years earlier in 2002, and at least three more in the years since.
In a 2003 news article, quoted in David Pierre’s book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, this same lawyer stated that Church officials in the Diocese of Manchester “did not even ask for details” such as dates or places or the abuse alleged before agreeing to settlements. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” the lawyer was quoted as saying. In a resume published on line, diocesan official Monsignor Edward Arsenault wrote that he has presided over the settlement of over 250 claims alleging abuse by priests in this one small diocese. All were settled without investigation or corroboration, gleaning their details and the names of the priests they wanted to accuse from Bishop-Accountability.
Regarding the 2004 letter above, I refused to go along with settlement. The Wall Street Journal published these demands and the names of these accusers in the first of a 2005 two-part article entitled, “A Priest’s Story.” The article began with a description of the account I just conveyed above.
The contingency lawyer protested at the time that he and his clients had accepted their settlements in exchange for an agreement of total anonymity from my diocese. I informed the diocesan lawyer that I was never a party to such an agreement and will not hesitate to publish the name of any person who falsely accuses me. I made a strong case for this in a post three years ago entitled, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused: Why Accusers Should be Named.” Since then, I have had no new accusers. Nonetheless, other previously accused priests of my diocese – many of them deceased just as in Dubuque – have been accused multiple times in ongoing settlement demands with no evidence or corroboration expected, or offered.
This has been the real purpose of Bishop-Accountability. It is not a clearinghouse for the news media, but for lawyers and prospective clients who want to get their ducks in a row to bring consistently believable claims against previously accused priests for unquestioned monetary settlements.
Meanwhile, just across the hall from me in this prison there are 100 prisoners in a sex-offender treatment program and another 1,200 or so on a waiting list. For them, without exception, the time between abuse and a victim coming forward to report it was anywhere from a few days to a year at most. In rare cases it has been two or three years. Only for Catholic priests, and no one else, is this measured in decades.
That environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has lured in sharks on a feeding frenzy. It should have a ring of familiarity for Catholic leaders engaged in ongoing settlements. The difference is that British Petroleum no longer fears using the f-word. BP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are making it clear that among the true victims of fraud is justice itself.