PORTLAND, Ore. A bankruptcy judge ruled today that the Archdiocese of Portland, not its parishes, owns church assets, dealing a major blow to its efforts to protect church property from lawsuits filed by alleged victims of priest sex abuse.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Perris, in a pair of opinions, ruled that church property and real estate is under the control of the archdiocese, not its individual parishes, as attorneys for the archdiocese had argued.
Her ruling settles one of the main questions on the bankruptcy whether accepting the jurisdiction of a federal court might violate the First Amendment rights of the church to the free exercise of religion by forcing it to ignore church law on ownership.
There is no First Amendment impediment to this court s jurisdiction, Perris wrote.
However, Perris left open the question of whether the sale of that property could pose an unfair burden on the practice of religion under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993.
Her ruling supports an earlier ruling in the bankruptcy of the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., which sought protection from creditors shortly after the Archdiocese of Portland became the first Catholic diocese in the nation to file for bankruptcy in July 2004.
In the Washington case, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams said Spokane Bishop William Skylstad agreed to abide by federal law when he voluntarily entered the diocese into bankruptcy, and cannot claim that ownership must be decided by church law.
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